WRITTEN BY ABID AMIRI | 27 February 2012
Published in the Diplomatic Courier Magazine
The major news out of Afghanistan this week has been the Quran burning violent protests around the country. On Tuesday the news broke that the U.S. – led military coalition forces had sent the holy books by mistake or intentionally, that remains to be investigated, to a garbage burn pit in Bagram Air Filed. Afghans were outraged by this appalling act, and thousands of them came out on the streets to protest. At first the demonstrations were peaceful. As the protests continued around the country in different provinces, they turned violent. Thus, at least 28 people have been killed and hundreds wounded since Tuesday. In addition, four American soldiers have been shot dead. However, it is important to know why only Afghans are protecting the Quran, and protesting against burning the Islamic holy book. Remember it is not the Afghan holy book, but the Islamic holy book. Why don’t people in Iran, Saudi Arabia or other Islamic countries also come out to protest? Not suggesting that they should, but isn’t the Quran their holy book too?
Certainly, Afghanistan is different than almost all other Islamic countries. First, it has the lowest literacy rate among Muslim nations – thanks to the four-decade long war. Three out of four Afghans age 15 and over cannot read and write. If they cannot read the Quran, they definitely do not understand it. Therefore, the majority of the population receives its basic Islamic knowledge from the tribal elders, the local Imams, and other religious leaders in the community. These individuals have strong political incentives to take advantage of incidents such as these protests. They mobilize people, appeal to their anger, and emotions in order to promote their political agendas. On the other hand, Muslims in Iran or Saudi Arabia are well educated. They do not take their religious leaders’ call for protest for granted. Almost 80% of Iranians are literate. They can read and understand the Quran. That is a major difference in literacy rate between Iran and Afghanistan – two neighboring countries, and it makes a huge difference in peoples’ approach to problems like the Quran burning.
Second, the unemployment rate in Afghanistan has been fluctuating between 30-40% since 2001, unlike any other Muslim country. That means almost 7 to 8 million people are unemployed in the country. A man from Parwan province was quoted in the 2010 Oxfam survey saying, “If the people are jobless, they are capable of doing anything.” Many of these young unemployed men are frustrated. They develop a sense of negative attitude towards the central government. Some leave the country, those who can afford to do so, and others get involved in widespread antisocial and criminal behaviors like the Quran burning violent protests. The bottom line is that while young Muslims around the world are employed, and enjoy a good life, the Afghan youth are struggling with unemployment and uncertainty that fuels anger, and violent activities, as a result.
Third, according to some estimates, almost 36% of the Afghan population is living under the poverty line. It is an unprecedented figure compared to any other Muslim country. In other words, one out of every three Afghans has a total income of less than $1 a day. They can at best barely meet their minimal needs for survival. Remember Afghanistan has had the harshest winter this year, and reportedly 40 people, most of them children, have frozen to death. These are the people living under the poverty line, in tents. Their children do not have warm clothes, and they walk around in the snow with bare feet, or torn apart sandals. People are sick and tired of living a subsistence life. They are frustrated and annoyed by the fact that so much foreign aid money has been poured into the country and their lives haven’t changed a bit, in some cases have gotten worse. These people are easily motivated by those who have political agendas to join violent protests.
In sum, it is not only Afghans responsibility to defend the Quran; however, the current social and economic problems have created the platform for Afghans to engage in such violent activities. Other Muslim nations are not amenable to such threats; therefore, we haven’t seen the Quran burning related incidents elsewhere.