Yesterday’s thoughtless and avoidable burning of several Qurans at Bagram air base has sparked a second day of protests across Afghanistan. The repercussions are expected to reverberate for several more days, at least. The demonstrations are a combination of religious outrage, pent-up frustration and groups wanting to stir trouble. It is difficult to predict how bad things will get; this will depend largely on who manages to control – or hijack – the expressions of anger.
There were demonstrations and road closures across the country, including in the outskirts of Kabul (Udkheil, around the university and in Darulaman), Jalalabad, Parwan, Laghman, Logar, Paktia and Kapisa. Other cities and areas are likely to follow suit in the coming days, to prove that they are as outraged as their compatriots. Several of the demonstrations turned violent. There were deaths – initial reports ranged from three to ten dead across the country – an unknown number of injured, considerable damage of private property and a sense of simmering anger that can easily be manipulated.
ISAF was unusually quick to acknowledge the incident, and a whole range of senior US officials – both military and civilian – apologised and assured the Afghan population of their greatest respect. The tone and volume of the statements bordered on the exaggerated and may embolden those who seek to exploit the situation, but it also reflected a keen understanding of what a disastrous mistake this was.*
The ISAF and US statements will only partially defuse the situation. The swift transparency of the reaction and the assurances that the case will be investigated are obviously much better than outright denial or leaving the field open to speculation and rumour. But they are unlikely to placate those who were determined from the outset to make as much noise as possible, or those who feel they have already heard so many apologies in the past.
There have been different kinds of outrage. One is the bewilderment felt by many Afghans (and foreigners) that after ten years of efforts in Afghanistan there was apparently still no understanding of how inflammatory mistakes like that are. The desecration of a Quran to many Afghans is even more emotive than civilian casualties or disrespect towards dead bodies and there is more social pressure to react. And even those who do not feel that strongly, or who feel no hostility towards the international forces, are exasperated at how this has provided another excuse for violence and aggressive religiously-loaded language.
Second, there is the pent-up anger and frustration: with the international military, but also with life in general. The demonstrations and road closures – by now a fairly regular theme in Afghan politics – are largely an expression of that. They provide an outlet, a distraction and an opportunity to feel temporarily powerful. And then there is also the mobilisation and manipulation, the fanning of the flames. Protests like this are rarely only spontaneous and situations like this provide irresistible opportunities for individuals and groups who wish to flex their muscles. Moreover, those engaging in violence probably think there will be a reluctance to question their actions or call them to account – and they may be right, because who wants to be accused of not caring enough?
What the next days will look like will depend largely on who manages to control – or hijack – the demonstrations and how the debates in the media and the mosques develop. Today has provided a taste of the different ways it can go. There can be peaceful gatherings and meetings with government officials, where people call for a thorough investigation and punishment of the culprits, as apparently was the case in Kandahar. There can be attempts to enter and ransack international compounds, as happened today in Kabul. The police and military can feel so threatened that they shoot into the crowds, with rubber bullets or live ammunition, which happened in various places but was apparently worst in Parwan outside the Bagram base (where the incident originally took place). There can be calls for jehad, as happened in Parliament this morning, or calls to go after the “spies of the internationals and the government”, which were overheard in the Kabul protests. The cover of religious outrage can thus become an excuse to intimidate, to target and to try to further establish the prominence of an aggressive expression of Islamic piety.
President Karzai was swift to let the Americans know that they wouldn’t be having this problem if they had already handed over control of the Bagram prison (an issue which is currently being eased out of the Strategic Partnership debates). The Taleban will use this in their propaganda, and already have, but will be careful not to overdo it, so they can avoid a strong reaction to the open acknowledgement of their talks with the US. And for more liberal-minded Afghans the space to express differing opinions – on rights and freedoms and on the role of the international community – will decrease even further.
This is not just about relations with the US. This is part of a wider struggle over what kind of society Afghanistan is becoming, over who the custodians of religious power will be and what they will use it for. How the demonstrations unfold over the coming days will provide further clues as to where we are heading.
* According to some reports the ISAF staff at Bagram was disposing of the left-behind property of released prisoners, which included Qurans and religious texts that they had been issued at their arrival. According to other reports, the documents had been removed from the prison library because they had ‘extremist’ content or inscriptions.
There are pictures of demonstrators carrying half-burnt books, but ISAF maintains that these cannot have come from the site, saying that they had secured all Qurans and religious texts in question.
Photo from the Pajhwok News Agency website.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020