Why Afghanistan has reacted so sharply to threat of Quran burning

Afghans burn tires and block a highway during a protest, in reaction to a small American church's Quran burning threat, at Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday. Rahmat Gul/AP

“While it’s hard to see an isolated Quran burning in Florida driving many ethnic Tajiks or Uzbeks to the Taliban’s side, the history of Afghanistan is replete with examples of insults against Islam – real or imagined –- lighting the dry religious tinder that cuts across ethnic lines there. That’s a strategy the Taliban has pursued for decades.

For Afghans, the physical Quran has symbolic force of its own. In traditional tribal battles, if one side was seeking to parlay or surrender, it would typically send a woman out holding high a Quran, much as Western armies once used white flags. Ironically, one of the pro-communist rulers of Afghanistan in the 1970s called a press conference at which he waved a Quran that he said had been desecrated by his political opponents. The attempt to rally political support failed, since his Soviet sponsors were well understood not to favor religion.

Perceived insults have affected Afghanistan in the past. In 2005, a riot broke out in Jalalabad after Newsweek incorrectly reported that a US interrogator had flushed a Quran down the toilet at Guantánamo Bay. Not only were examples of the foreign presence attacked (the UN withdrew staff from the city after two of its guesthouses were attacked), but so were Afghan government installations, since the administration of President Hamid Karzai is seen by many Afghans as a symbol of the foreign presence as well. Four rioters were killed before the incident petered out.”


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