How Afghans View the Quran Burnings

Afghans protest in Kabul on Sept. 6, 2010, against a plan by a Florida church to burn the Quran on Sept. 11. Musadeq Sadeq / AP

Even before any Qurans have been torched by Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center church in Gainesville, Fla., Islamic extremist leaders are fanning the flames of the controversy, taking advantage of a propaganda windfall. Afghan insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whom the U.S. has labeled as a terrorist, issued a statement this week saying the Quran burning is "part of the American war against Muslims." "They started this war 60 years ago by occupying Palestine, and then invaded Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. He called on all Muslims to fight back. Already the Pakistani Taliban in Pakistan's lawless tribal area are using the threat of the burnings in their propaganda. "We are telling the people that it's not surprising that Americans are burning Qurans," says a Pakistani Taliban commander in Wana who declined to be named for security reasons. "Setting fire to our holy book is just the latest part of American policy that burns the bodies of Muslims in B-52 and drone attacks." The Quran burnings will serve as additional motivation to insurgent fighters to intensify their attacks against U.S. and Pakistani forces, the commander predicts. "The ultimate consequence of this act will be to create more suicide bombers who will hunt out Americans in Afghanistan and Pakistan," he adds.

Jones's threats to throw Qurans into a bonfire at his church this Saturday, Sept. 11, marking the ninth anniversary of Osama bin Laden's terrorist attacks on the U.S., have already led to widespread outcry both at home and abroad. It seems more and more likely that news reports and videos of the Quran burnings will shake Muslims around the globe and likely create a widespread, destabilizing, and violent reaction in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, as Interpol has warned.

"If they commit this terrible thing, the reaction will be immediate throughout the Muslim world and in Afghanistan," Abdul Jabar Shelghari, a member of the Afghan Parliament from Ghazni province, tells NEWSWEEK. "Remember all of your American soldiers here in Afghanistan are sitting next door to Afghans."

Ahmad Nader Nadery, the commissioner of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, agrees that the defiling of the Quran plays into the Taliban's hands. "The Taliban will take full advantage of this opportunity and will further endanger the Afghan government and its international partners," he says. "This serves as a perfect recruiting tool for the Taliban." M.P. Shelghari goes even further. "Such an act will snatch away from America any chance of victory here and will create more mujahedin and antigovernment elements," he says. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, has already warned that the Quran burnings "could endanger our troops and ... endanger the overall effort."

In addition, Nadery believes that any desecration of the Quran will undercut, if not destroy, what good will the U.S. has been able to win from Afghans. "Now it will be even more difficult for ordinary and illiterate Afghans to understand that the U.S. is here to help," he says. "They will see this as a reckless insult to Muslims by the U.S. If the U.S. government doesn't stop it, people will conclude that the government supports it." He believes the Quran burnings may also torpedo all the hard work his commission and other NGOs have done to promote freedom and human rights in Afghanistan. "This burning will put people like us who promote human rights and defend freedom in a very difficult position," he says. "Conservative politicians will ask: why should we adopt the values of the hypocritical West when it doesn't respect our religion and acts recklessly against us?" He predicts that the small but angry demonstrations, representing a broad cross section of Afghans, that took to the streets this week in Kabul to protest against the prospect of the Quran burnings will become more violent and spread like wildfire if Jones carries out this threats.

Jones's defiant action will also help bolster the relatively toothless Islamic religious parties in Pakistan, giving them a new and volatile issue to exploit. "The common man will be greatly offended by this act," says Lahore-based political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. "This will provide an excellent opportunity to the religious parties to mobilize street protests condemning the United States and its ally, the Pakistani government." Such protests will aid the armed militants as well, Rizvi adds, as they often work under the cover of the Islamic parties.

Munawar Hassan, the leader of largest religious party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, bristled when NEWSWEEK asked him if he would call for anti-American street protests in reaction to the Quran burnings. "Why are you asking me about agitation and demonstrations here? Aren't there any sane and literate persons in Florida who realize how serious this is?" he asked. "You should care about what's happening in Florida and stop it." He said this is another example of American hypocrisy: "You Americans are always preaching against Muslim fundamentalists, extremists, and terrorists. But what about this act? This is more than extremism and terrorism."

If the Quran burning does go ahead, it will almost certainly fuel more extremism and terrorism.