Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

The Dead of Mazar

Thomas Ruttig 4 min

Today, our thoughts are with the UN colleagues who were killed in Mazar-e Sharif yesterday and also with the Afghans killed there(*), not knowing whether they had just been using their constitutional right to demonstrate or indeed had murder in their hearts. And we hope that Pastor Jones in Gainesville, Florida, had a sleepless night, tortured by his conscience that he triggered the events that led to the Mazar killings with his 20 March Quran burning (although in interviews he has been in no way remorseful). Thoughts by AAN Co-Director Thomas Ruttig.

Celebrating Nawruz in Mazar-e Sharif, 2005 (Photo: Thomas Ruttig)Celebrating Nawruz in Mazar-e Sharif, 2005 (Photo: Thomas Ruttig)

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’ autodafé in the Berlin of 1933 were they set the works of Jewish, Marxist and pacifist – in short ‘un-German’ – writers like Heinrich Mann, Remarque, Tucholsky, Kaestner, Freud and Marx alight. (I always admired the Bavarian writer, Oskar Maria Graf, who wrote a letter of protest to the ‘Fuehrer’ when he discovered that his books had been spared.

What makes people in Afghanistan so angry that they 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.

Secondly, when demonstrations are organised 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 this is necessarily the Taleban doing this. Indeed, the Taleban have rejected any involvement, 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 Taleban 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 were.

Why is it so easy to manipulate genuine outpourings of popular anger here? This is about the general atmosphere in the country. We see a polarization beyond the immediate armed parties in this conflict – the diverse foreign and insurgent forces -, also effecting the civilian population. There is a lot of anger after years in which Western military operations have caused an accumulation of civilian casualty cases. Afghans are tired of the repeated initial denials, then admission that something may have gone wrong and then apologies. Paying compensation might be nice gestures but cannot bring anyone back to life.

And 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’, US soldiers in FOB Ramrod in Helmand, 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 the involved surely represent only a tiny faction of soldiers deployed here (and let us not forget that they are currently tried) 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 categorisation of all Afghans as potential enemies amongst European, more experienced and well-educated officers as well.

This categorisation 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 Nepalis; 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.

Yes, there are outrageous acts – both on the ‘Afghan’ and the ‘foreign’ side – but responsibility does not rest with whole groups or categories of people, but 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 SOF 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 we hope 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 if not deemed to directly inciting violence seems to be protected by the First Amendment(**), we still hope that, despite his public denials, his dreams will be visited by the pictures of the slain of Mazar and, after today, Kandahar.

(*) Therefore, we ‘lower our flag to half-mast’ for three days of mourning, displaying just black as our homepage photograph.

(**) See a discussion of this aspect under this link.


Mazar UN