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Koran burning prompts third day of rage Add to ...

Six years ago, a Danish newspaper's caricatures of Islam's Prophet Mohammed ignited anti-Western riots and bombings across the world that killed hundreds of people. Dozens more died in protests after a magazine report, later debunked, that Korans were dumped in toilets at the American prison at Guantanamo Bay.

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Just the threat seven months ago by a Florida extremist to burn one copy of the Muslim holy book was enough to unleash a wave of violence in Muslim countries. The once-obscure pastor, Terry Jones, followed through on his threat last month. Marches, murder and mayhem followed in Afghanistan, where a third day of protests continued Sunday.

The deadly fury provoked by one man's desecration of a single Koran thousands of miles away illustrates how volatile Afghanistan remains. But it also serves as a fresh reminder of the mutual misunderstandings that have plagued relations between Muslims and non-Muslims for years.

Western officials in Kabul, as well as U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, have tried to tamp down the anger over the Koran burning by portraying it as the reprehensible act of a few bigots who do not represent the values of the international community.

In an unusual statement, General David Petraeus, the American commander of the NATO forces, and Mark Sedwill, the British ambassador who is the coalition's top civilian representative, went a step further. They condemned "any disrespect to the Holy Koran and the Muslim faith."

In the eyes of many Afghans, though, the U.S. government should treat an insult to Islam in the same way Muslim governments treat it - as a crime.

"In a land that claims to be a democracy, how can they allow a religious scholar to burn a Holy Koran?" said Farooq Wardak, the Afghan Minister of Education. "Our expectation of the government of the United States is that it should have prevented him, seized him, held him or put him in prison so he didn't do this action."

The notion that what is sacred in Islam should have universal protection has fuelled many of the conflicts in recent years between countries where Muslims are a minority within a multicultural state and countries, such as Afghanistan, that enshrine Islam as the state religion.

When satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed were published in Denmark, and later in France and Germany, the dispute was seen in Europe as a matter of balancing freedom of expression with religious sensitivity.

But Arab countries boycotted Danish goods and European Muslims took the newspapers to court for hate-mongering, while others rioted and burned embassies.

Similarly, in 1989, Iran's Ayatollah Khomaini declared that the India-born British writer Salman Rushdie had committed blasphemy against Islam and issued a death warrant against him. It set off riots and book burnings in some Muslim countries, as well as assassination attempts on translators of the book.

In the West, Mr. Rushdie was hailed and given round-the-clock police protection as a heroic victim of religious fundamentalists.

"We need to remember, as in the Danish crisis and now with this one in Florida, that the tendency among demagogues in the Muslim world is to call for limiting freedom of expression, to say 'arrest them and put them in jail,' " said Mustapha Tlili, director of the Center for Dialogues at New York University.

But sensitivity to the religious sensibilities of Muslims has also been absent. "You also have the rigid, almost ideological, reaction on the part of some Western countries that we have to totally respect freedom of expression," Mr. Tlili added.

The violent protests in Afghanistan against the Koran burning began on Friday in the normally placid city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Protesters had permission from the provincial governor to hold a demonstration, but their march changed course and deteriorated quickly into a mob attack on the United Nations headquarters there.

By the time it was over, four of the six Nepalese guards working for the UN and four Afghan demonstrators were dead. Three foreign staff members of the mission were hunted down and shot, some in the back, as they ran from a bunker where they had tried to hide. One person's throat was also slit.

What started out as a religious grievance then quickly conflated into a multitude of grievances against the United States and the presence of foreign troops, with no Afghan leader calling for an end to the protests.

"The problem in Afghanistan is that in the past couple of years, radical views have dominated the political scene," said Haroun Mir, a political analyst in Kabul. "You can't find a level voice that can stand up to these radicals. No one has the courage to say anything."

On Saturday, fighting broke out in Kandahar city, in the south, where bands of men and boys smashed shops, burned a school and fought pitched gun battles with local police. Five people were killed.

A second day of protests on Sunday in Kandahar left two people dead. One was a police officer, according to the provincial governor's office. The other was a child, killed when a mob set a traffic police post on fire, causing a gas canister inside to explode.

Other protests were held in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where angry crowds shouted anti-American slogans.

Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version of this story incorrectly stated that Iran's Ayatollah Khomaini declared that writer Salman Rushdie had committed blasphemy against Iran. This online version has been corrected.





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