The South Asia Channel

The dead of Mazar

It sounds like chaos theory: a fringe extremist religious leader in the Florida boondocks holds a trial of the Quran for its role in inspiring the 9/11, condemns it to death and has someone else execute it by burning – and on the other side of the world, angry Muslims, possibly incited by sermons of ...


It sounds like chaos theory: a fringe extremist religious leader in the Florida boondocks holds a trial of the Quran for its role in inspiring the 9/11, condemns it to death and has someone else execute it by burning – and on the other side of the world, angry Muslims, possibly incited by sermons of hatred, storm a "foreigners" compound and in the words of the UN spokesman on BBC TV last night, "hunt down" and kill seven of them. Who would have thought that something like this could be possible following the Nazis’ auto-da-fé in the Berlin of 1933 were they set the works of Jewish, Marxist and pacifist – in short "un-German" – writers like Heinrich Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Kurt Tucholsky, Erich Kästner, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx alight.

What makes people in Afghanistan so angry that they would attack random foreigners, UN personnel who have nothing at all to do with that fringe pastor’s act?

First, we have to consider that most Afghans are very religious. Burning their holy book is really the biggest provocation one could think off. Pastor Jones, who – in his way – seems to be very religious, too, must have understood this when he staged his mock trial provocation.

Second, when demonstrations are organized in Afghanistan, it is easy for anyone under the current circumstances to take advantage, infiltrate and direct them where they want them to go. It does not mean that the protest and subsequent bloodshed is necessarily the work of the Taliban. Indeed, the Taliban have rejected any involvement in the killings, whilst at the same time praising the killers. But given their record of atrocities, they are an easy scapegoat. The statements of some Afghan officials which pointed to Taliban involvement in yesterday’s incidents – both the governors of Kandahar and Balkh – seem to be examples of this kind of finger pointing. But it is still too early to draw any conclusions as to who the demonstrators who stormed the compound were.

One reason it is so easy to manipulate genuine outpourings of popular anger here is due to Afghanistan’s general atmosphere at the moment. We see a polarization beyond the immediate armed parties in this conflict – the diverse foreign and insurgent forces – also impacting the civilian population. There is a lot of anger after years in which Western military operations have caused an accumulation of civilian casualties. Afghans are tired of the repeated initial denials, then admission that something may have gone wrong and then apologies. Paying compensation might be a nice gesture, but it cannot bring anyone back to life.

Moreover, over the past weeks such cases have appeared to be unusually frequent: three cases in Kunar province alone, more in Helmand and probably a number that went unreported. Then came the pictures of the "Kill Team," U.S. soldiers at Forward Operating Base Ramrod in Helmand province, who seem to have conspired to kill totally innocent passers-by, some of the perpetrators driven by feelings of hatred, revenge and prejudice against Afghans in general. Although those involved surely represent only a tiny faction of soldiers deployed here (and let us not forget that they are currently to be tried, and one participant has already pled guilty and been sentenced to prison) I cannot help but assuming that this is what war does to young, inexperienced people that have not been exposed to other cultures before and are thrown in the middle of a conflict they do not understand with people they do not understand. But I have experienced categorization of all Afghans as potential enemies amongst European, more experienced and well-educated officers as well.

This categorization of "the others" is matched by radical preachers in Afghan mosques who lump together any "foreigners" and "kafirs" (unbelievers), regardless of what they actually might believe in – whether father, son and holy ghost; Shiva, Parvati et al, as is likely in the case of the killed Nepali guards at the UN compound; or "just" the value of humanitarian work abroad. I am personally getting increasingly tired of these terms. Yes, I am a "kafir" and a foreigner – but I am also pretty different from many others in the category which has been assigned to me.

Outrageous acts have been committed, both on the Afghan and "foreign" side, yet responsibility does not rest with whole groups or categories of people, but instead with individuals. I wish that Pastor Jones and some of the imams in Mazar and Kandahar would look up whether their books have something to say about individual responsibility.

I also understand that a lot of Afghans are just sick and tired of all the internationals in their country, from special operations soldiers to Afghanistan analysts, none of whom they are convinced have really changed their lives for the better at all. But while the anger of everyone involved in this sad story is understandable, the manipulation of this anger is not. And it should not exempt anyone from facing his or her responsibilities.

The Afghan police have arrested some of the demonstrators involved in the violence in the Mazar – and I hope that they did not just randomly pick up people (which would further spin the cycle of harm done to innocents, a cycle which creates lot of the anger). And since Pastor Jones’ provocation, which if not deemed to have directly incited violence seems to be protected by the First Amendment, we still hope that, despite his public denials of incitement, his dreams will be visited by the pictures of the slain of Mazar and, after today, Kandahar.

Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where a version of this post was originally published. He speaks Pashtu and Dari. 

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