The South Asia Channel

What a Mob Says About the State of Islam in Afghanistan

A brutal lynching of a women highlights the intolerance preached in Afghanistan.

AFGHANISTAN-UNREST-WOMEN-RELIGION
An Afghan female protester, her face painted red to depict Farkhunda's bloodied face, shouts slogans with others during a rally in front of The Supreme Court in Kabul on March 24, 2015, held to protest the killing of Afghan woman Farkhunda. More than a thousand people protested in the Afghan capital, to call for justice after a woman was brutally killed by a mob who falsely accused her of burning a copy of the Koran. The woman, 27 year-old Farkhunda was beaten with sticks and stones, thrown from a roof, before being run over by a car outside a mosque in Kabul on March 19, the mob then set her body a blaze and dumped it in Kabul river while police allegedly looked on. AFP PHOTO / SHAH Marai (Photo credit should read SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images)

The brutal lynching of Farkhunda, has revealed a number of significant issues regarding the state of Islam in Afghanistan.

The most crucial is that a fanatic strand of Islamic has become normalized, and accepted by a mainstream audience. The imam who incited the violence, the mob who lynched Farkhunda, the bystanders who filmed it — they were not the disenfranchised. They were ordinary Afghans, members of the middle class, including shop keepers. The initial public reaction was approval, expressed by public figures representing the spheres of culture and education.

They included a female deputy culture minister, who said, in reference to the murder, that nothing can stand in the way of the pure faith of the people. Rahel Musavi, a presenter on Tamadon TV, provided another public message of support saying, “She deserved to burn in the fire of the people’s anger.” And then there was the sermon of the imam, Ayaz Niazi, whose message can be summed up as follows: The people who killed Farkhunda were correct and the police have no right to arrest them. If they do, the people have the right to stage an uprising. This imam has a doctorate in Islamic law from the most respected institution in the Muslim world: the Al-Azhar University in Egypt and he teaches at Kabul University in addition to being an imam at a mosque in an affluent area of Kabul. All three figures used the phrase “people’s sentiments and beliefs” to stress the legitimacy of the lynching. Initially, similar messages of support abounded before the voices of opposition made themselves heard.

What do we learn from this? A populist, fanatic strand of Islam appealing to base emotionality has become mainstream, finding an audience in all levels of society.

What Kind of Islam?

Listening to the preacher Niazi’s sermon, it is easy to learn what kind of Islam is disseminated to the wider population through the institutions of mosques, universities, and religious media outlets. A key characteristic of this version of Islam is that is encourages lawlessness. Niazi told the mosque audience, that their religious sensitivity is the supreme source of legitimacy, overriding the legitimacy of the state and law enforcement. But to what extent? According to the sermon, it would seem that the believer is entitled to kill first and ask questions later. Even if it turns out that the believer was wrong, the supremacy of his religious emotions are such that police has no right to arrest him. In other words, religious sentiment, not religion, is the supreme force and the prime source of legitimacy in Afghanistan. This was what Niazi was endorsing.

From this it becomes clear that what the mob did to Farkhunda was putting into action the lessons that they were taught in mosques and schools, in religious media and at universities: that their religious emotions entitle them to murder. Hence, the lynching was not a breach of “religious norms,” it was the practicing of these norms. It is also useful to bear in mind that Niazi is classified as a moderate Muslim.

The Consequence

Why do preachers and similar public figures, encourage, empower and legitimize the emotional aspect of religiosity? I’d argue that public figures like Niazi, the deputy minister, and the TV presenter do not lead by example, do not guide, and do not educate. They tell people what they want to hear. The result of this mutual charming is that everybody who belongs to this collective is kept happy, feeling understood and validated. At the top, public figures are ensured popular support. At the bottom, the mob is appeased that the enemy and the oppressor is outside, not within.

The Enemy Outside

Who is the enemy outside? In the first stage of the encounter, the crowd that gathered around Farkhunda while she was still alive, said the following things about her in her presence, as if she were not there: Americans have sent her. She’s French. She’s German.

This is how Farkhunda was declared a non-Muslim, which automatically turned her into an enemy. This, too, is a result of the interpretation of Islam that has become mainstream in Afghanistan. An outsider is automatically classified as an enemy and an enemy, in turn, is not seen as a fellow human being deserving of a life or a space to share with the Muslims in this world.

Later, the Afghan media rightly explained that Farkhunda was a victim of prejudice and that her protestations were ignored, and deemed insignificant. Farkhunda’s mother asked, “Why did they say she was foreign? Are these people not capable of recognizing their own language when someone speaks it?” Indeed, why did the mob not recognize a fellow Afghan girl, born, raised and educated in their own city?

There are two reasons. First, their perception of reality was not shaped by what they saw and heard with their own eyes and ears but by the words of the shrine’s imam. He said that Farkhunda had burnt the Quran. Caught between their own perception and the imam’s description of reality, the crowd was incapable of thinking for themselves. A Muslim could not possibly burn the Quran. She had to be a foreigner. The mob immediately believed the imam. After all, a man of god does not lie.

This is how brain-washing works. Afghan imams do not practice religious education. What they do is mass manipulation.

The Consequence

Making Farkhunda part of the “other” was the catalyst for the unleashing of an extraordinary high level of aggression. Watching the video, what we see is lustful violence. The release gives the murderers a physical high. Like all forms of intoxication, the feeling of elation need to be fed, so the violence grew  in intensity, kicking led to beating with sticks and metal bars, followed by running the body over with a car, followed by throwing the body into the dry river bank, followed by throwing stones and finally, burning.

Many Afghans continue to believe that the supreme law is their own religious emotions. This belief is not natural, it’s carefully cultivated and sustained through collective effort. Some comply out of fear, others out of populist motivation, others because they are ignorant. Afghan activists are some of the few who have opposed the message. In return, they have received threats. The nature of these threats is summed up by the following statement that a TV personality working for a religious channel said that Farkhunda’s burning will be a lesson to the other whores. Many Muslims around the world share this view. The precedent was set in England with the Salman Rushdie affair, when, in December 1988, 7,000 British Muslims gathered in Bolton and set fire to Rushdie’s book in the name of offended religious sentiment Since then we have had the phenomenon of global terrorism carried out by individual Muslims who believe that their religious emotions are the source of supreme legitimacy, overriding any other law. The result is that we all live in fear of the Muslim next door.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Lecturer in International Area Studies and a UCLA International Institute Research Scholar at the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA.

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