U.S. Insensitivity Sparks Riots

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

Two incidents in recent days have raised questions about the ability of the U.S. government and military to maintain good relations with the Muslim community at home and abroad. The burning of several copies of the Koran at a U.S. base in Afghanistan, as well as revelations that the New York Police Department has for some time been monitoring American Muslims in New York have, for many, highlighted American ineptitude, if not outright disregard and insensitivity.

The fallout from last week’s news was best summed up Huma Yusuf, who notes in the Pakistani daily Dawn: “In terms of public relations, last week was a terrible one for the United States across the Muslim world. Thousands marched, set fire to trucks, and clashed with security forces after copies of the Quran and other texts were rescued from the incinerators of Bagram airbase in Afghanistan….While Afghans took to the streets to protest against the burnt religious texts, Muslim students in America’s northeast called town hall meetings and issued press statements to condemn the latest revelations about the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) attempts to monitor Muslim communities….The issue at stake here is not whether the surveillance programme can be justified, rather what it says about America’s understanding of and approach to Islamic terrorism.”

Reflecting on the events unfolding in Afghanistan, Outlook Afghanistan seems surprised that even though “…ten years of the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan have passed … it seems like they are still unaccustomed to customs, tradition and beliefs of the people of Afghanistan. From time to time, the NATO troops have been found guilty in acts of disgracing Islam or stepping over the honor of Afghans….These kinds of incidents have done much to widen the gap of trust between Afghans and the international community. The U.S. has been blowing the trumpets of human rights, democracy and justice and claiming to support the same values in countries like Afghanistan. But incidents where its soldiers act against the disciplines, laws, traditions and customs negate all those claims. The U.S. and its allies have to take such issues as ‘very serious,’ and prosecute the culprits accordingly in order to prevent from losing their credibility further in the eyes of Afghans and Muslims.”

The leaders of Afghanistan responded swiftly to the news of the burning of the Koran at Baghram airbase, but called for calm: “The government and its organs fully support the honest Islamic sentiments of the people and as an Islamic government stand with its people. The government, National Assembly, the Supreme Court and the high council of ulema council of Afghanistan strongly condemn this tragic act and ask the U.S. authorities and the coalition forces once again to prevent repetition of such unpleasant act in the future….The government of Afghanistan is in contact with the U.S. government in this respect and shall exert all efforts for trial of the perpetrators of this tragic incident. And asks the honest Muslims of Afghanistan to preserve their calmness and by respecting the laws give the opportunity to the government so that it can pursue this issue through legal channels and can prevent occurrence of such incident in the future.”

As Pajhwok Afghan News’ Abasin Zaheeron reports, other Afghani politicians also expressed their views about what the proper response should be to the news: “Some Meshrano Jirga (upper house) members on Sunday asked the people to resort to violent demonstrations against the alleged burning of the Quran, but others called for exercising restraint….Minority Sikh legislator Anar Kali Hunaryar also condemned the burning of the Quran by U.S. troops, saying no one had the right to insult sacred places and books of a community. She favored peaceful protests….But a lawmaker from southern Zabul province, Mohammad Hassan Hotak, believed the deaths were still few, given the gravity of the crime. ‘Don’t call for peaceful protests,’ he told his colleagues. ‘My demand is that protests should go on for a month,’ he said, adding a resort to violence was needed under such circumstances. ‘We should show infidels that we can defend our religion,’ Hotak said.”

In the aftermath of the incident, others have tried to make a push for a different form of engagement with the United States. The Pakistani daily Nation was clearly unhappy with the current arrangement that in its view favors the US to the detriment of other regional actors: “In a statement issued by the PM’s media office on Friday, [Prime Minister Gilani] stressed the importance of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan to the region, and couched his appeal in unexceptionable terms. However, it should be noted that the appeal followed the setting up of a Taliban office in Qatar, so as to have direct talks with the United States. This may fulfill the Taliban demand, which is based on what seems a desire to talk with the real decision-makers, but which shuts both Kabul and Islamabad out from the process….The government must make clear to the USA that only a natural solution, which recognizes the true ethnic proportions of Afghanistan, and which allows the Pashtuns to exert their natural majority, will provide it that stability which the USA claims it wants, not a solution imposed by it, based on non-Pashtun minorities.”

Another regional daily, The National notes: “The Taliban modulated its own outrage, confirming to reporters that so-called confidence-building contacts with the U.S. in Qatar will not be interrupted because of the incident. This combination of rhetoric and back-room pragmatism reveals rising Taliban political confidence as the 2014 withdrawal of foreign troops approaches….Once Western troops are gone, the Taliban will still be part of the Afghanistan; politics and the uncertain Afghan army will determine the extent of their influence. Many different measures are still urgently needed to strengthen more reasonable forces. A good place to start would be to find some cultural sensitivity.”

Finally, there are those who see hypocrisy in the anger of the rioters. Outlook Afghanistan’s Hadi Zaher writes: “Protests rallies are the most common form of expression of mass opinion and often of discontent regarding political, economic and social issues in modern societies….In a religiously charged society like Afghanistan, once a Holy Quran has been burned by people deemed foreigners or non-Muslims, even when it is done by mistake, it is already too late. Hordes of zealous mullahs, pseudo-Taliban and opportunist politicians will spare no time and energy to rally supporters…..One wonders that how many of the protestors are part of the 60% or more of the Afghan population who can neither properly read nor write and are utter illiterates. Afghans need to think that which is a greater insult to their country and their people: the fact that a Quran was burned…, or that Afghanistan is one of the most illiterate, one of the most misogynist and one of the most backward countries in the world.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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