Context & Culture

Under Strange Flags: Afghans’ delayed protests against an ‘anti-Islam film’


Afghanistan’s public has reacted, after a few days of delay, to a video produced by fringe anti-Islam activists in the US. While last Friday saw violent demonstrations in many parts of the Muslim world, Afghans widely remained quite calm despite mullahs across major cities preaching angry sermons about the hostility of America or the West, generally, towards Muslims. Then, on Sunday and Monday, protests took place in seven provinces. The delayed reaction might be a sign that Sunday’s and Monday’s demonstrations – none of them reportedly with more then 1,000 participants – had radical political groups behind them. At a students’ protest in Kabul, symbols were shown that are usually associated with the Taleban and other, more minor, radical groups. Elsewhere, demonstrators were upset about Afghan-specific issues: civilian casualties (Laghman), cross-border shelling (Kunar) and illegal land distribution by officials (Baghlan). Borhan Osman reports (with input from Thomas Ruttig).

If one accepts the maximum number of protesters reported to have been out on the streets, across the country, over the last two days, then only up to 5,000 people took part in the demonstrations. Most were students: on Sunday, up to 1,000 at Kabul University (some reports only saw several hundred participants) and 200 at Herat University; on Monday, 700 students at Taloqan University (Takhar), 400 at Mazar University (Balkh), 300 at the Faculty of Agriculture in Pul-e Khumri (Baghlan) and fewer at Al-Biruni University (Mahmud Raqi, Kapisa). Aside from the students, some hundred people protested outside Jalalabad on Sunday, mobilised by a local Ulema council. On Monday, another 1,000 people, mainly inhabitants of the eastern suburb of Kabul, Pul-e Charkhi/Hotkhel (mainly Hotaks live there) took to the streets, along with 600 people in Qalat, capital of Zabul province in the south.
Apart from in Kabul, all the student protests have been held on university compounds and all were closely watched by the police. In Zabul, protesters listened to religious leaders, blocked the highway for some time and went home peacefully. The members of the Afghan Senate also closed their house on Sunday and marched out in protest, some of them shouting anti-US slogans. The Wolesi Jirga, the lower house, however, continued its proceeding as normal and only issued a statement on Saturday.

Today‘s demonstration in the east of Kabul had around 1,000 people, marching from Hotkhel on the Jalalabad Road towards the city as early as 6:30 am. It seems the demo was planned by local residents inspired by mulla-imams. The demonstrators burned tires and set ablaze one or two police car and even shops, according to eyewitnesses quoted in the Afghan media. Locals say shots were fired by the police, but into the air to disperse the crowd. Some protesters apparently also carried – and fired – guns. Some policemen were injured but mainly from stones hurled. Kabul police chief, General Muhammad Ayub Salangi, also claimed he was wounded. In the Afghan context, this was not much violence.

Sunday’s student demonstration in the capital was organized mainly by students of the Sharia Faculty of Kabul University, but they were joined by some of their teachers and students from the Polytechnic University, the Education University, the Teacher Training Institute, the Afghan Technical and Vocational Institute (ATVI) and some private colleges. This protest also ended peacefully, without making its way to the centre of the city and the US embassy, as initially planned. At the end of the demonstration, the students issued a declaration, condemning the Obama administration’s refusal to take action against the producer of the movie. Muslim countries were also urged to cut relations with the US and the Afghan government was pressed to expel foreign troops from the country and scrap the Strategic Cooperation Agreement with the US.

This demonstration, however, was different from previous students demos in Kabul. For the first time, black and Taleban white flags were raised in a public event and en masse. White flags are strongly associated with the Taleban – non-Taleban would hardly dare raise them – and black flags with the pan-Islamist (but non-violent) movement, Hezb ut-Tahrir,(1) whose main goal is the ‘revival’ of a global Islamic government or Caliphate (khelafat). Indeed, in a recording of the demo heard by AAN, loud shouting of the slogan ‘khelafat, khelafat’ could be heard. Some protestors held banners denouncing democracy as a ‘system of kufr’ and friendship with non-Muslims as enmity to Allah, all slogans which are typical of Hezb-ut-Tahrir. Students contacted by AAN confirmed these type of slogans had been used.

Hezb ut-Tahrir is banned in Afghanistan, but activity by it has occasionally been reported over the last several years. In a 2010 report for AREU, Antonio Giustozzi wrote that the party had established itself ‘only recently in Afghanistan’ and had come ‘from Pakistan’. He adds:

It appears to be recruiting mainly non-Pashtuns […]. Its presence was reported mainly in Kabul, but also in Herat, particularly within the Islamic Law faculty. The party does not endorse violent activities at this stage and one of their main activities is the distribution of night letters. […] Some teachers of the Islamic Law faculty in Kabul also reportedly are party members. Hizb ut-Tahrir targets highly religious individuals [for recruitment].

NDS has already carried out several crackdowns on the party and detained some members, mainly in Kabul, Kapisa and Jalalabad. (The university in Jalalabad, known for the Hezb-e Islami influence, has had no protests in recent days.)

The Taleban, for their part, have shown a great deal of interest in the Kabul demo, both in its official media and through its individual propagandists on social networks, covering it as it started in the early hours. There have been anecdotal reports by some students at Kabul University that they are active in the insurgency at night, either with the Taleban or Hezb-e Islami, mainly in Wardak province.

The outrage over the film has also been heavily reflected these days among young Afghans on the social networks and in mass SMS messages. There, much praise can be found for the murder of the US ambassador in Libya, as well as inflammatory statements, Photo-shopped propaganda pictures and a blanket condemnation of Jews and Americans. A minority of these youth are calling for a more rational response and have been questioning the legitimacy of mob-style reactions with Islamic reasoning.

The anti-US slogans of the students and the senators echoed the tone that was adopted by some mullahs in their khutbas (Friday prayer). In one of the biggest mosques of the capital, the new Haji Abdul Rahman Mosque, in downtown Kabul, next to Zarnegar Park, the mulla concluded that Americans were, as always, the staunch enemies of Muslims, and all Muslims should be equally enemies of the Americans, standing united against their plots in their actions. However, the tone of the criticism of the anti-Islamic film was far more cautious and less intended to incite people to immediate action.

In Kabul’s historical Pul-e Kheshti mosque, the biggest mosque in the capital, the imam held Jews and Americans responsible for the killing of the US ambassador to Libya last week. He went further, warning, in advance, that if American soldiers get killed in Afghanistan (the Taleban have already announced a campaign for avenging the film on foreign soldiers), American themselves would be to blame. However, he also did not call for a protest, but told worshippers that if they did demonstrate, they had to remain peaceful.

The restraint appears partly due to greater effectiveness on the part of the government in keeping things quiet. President Hamed Karzai also delayed an official trip to Norway, and Gmail, Google and YouTube were blocked over the (Afghan) weekend. On the other hand, those imams who are attached to particular networks (Salafi, Hezb-e Islami or from the new movement of Jamiat-e Eslah(2) do not usually call for protests spontaneously, but coordinate it beforehand with their network.

Unfortunately, Afghan media did not refer to the fact that the position of the anti-Islamic filmmaker is not shared by the large majority of citizens in the West. Different groups, Muslim and non-Muslim, have reacted strongly against the movie in Germany, for example. And while in Germany, too, some minor political groups have tried to mobilise using anti-Islam slogans and tried to spread the movie, on the whole they have attracted much less sympathy in the population then protests against those group and their religious hatred.

Meanwhile, other protests have taken place in Afghanistan for other reasons over the same days, but received much less attention. In Laghman province, protesters walked from Alingar district to the provincial governor’s compound in Mehtarlam and demonstrated peacefully against the killing of a number of women and girls during an airstrike. Apparently the women had been gathering firewood in the mountains on early Saturday (15 September) and were mistaken for insurgents. While ISAF claims it had attacked a group of some 45 insurgents, it conceded that ‘five to eight’ civilians were among the dead. Today, 700-800 people gathered in Assadabad, the centre of Kunar province, to protest against renewed Pakistani cross-border shelling (read our recent blog about the subject here). And in Pul-e Khumri, there was a demonstration against alleged illegal land distribution by governmental officials.

(1) Hezb ut-Tahir’s centre is in Britain, but it works in many other countries, often clandestinely, including in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

(2) Jamiat-e Eslah is a social organization operating in Afghanistan since about a decade. It is emerging as a powerful religiously-inspired movement with considerable popular youth following in Kabul, Nangarhar and Herat. It runs various media outlets, including a TV channel in Herat and an Islamic radio in Kabul. On this association, also see Giustozzi’s already quoted report: according to him, its full name is Jamiat-i Islah wa Inkeshaf Ejtema-yi Afghanistan (Society for the Reform and Development of Afghan Society), and it is ‘alleged by some to be a “front organization” of Hezb-i Islami, […] well funded [and] focused on cultural activities. [It] also maintains a private (but registered) teacher training institute. Jamiat-i Islah is present in great strength at the Jalalabad campus, where some lecturers also support it, and is also probably the largest association in Kabul university. It is also reported to be active in private universities. Some of its own members acknowledge the Islamist inclination of the organisation, its support for the establishment of an Islamic government in Afghanistan and its character of opposition.’

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