Apologies Fail to Quell Ire Over Koran Burning as Probe Opens
By Eltaf Najafizada and Viola Gienger
Feb. 23 (Bloomberg) — Neither American apologies nor an investigation into the incident stemmed anger among Afghans over the burning of the Koran, the Islamic scripture, at the main U.S. base in Afghanistan.
At least seven Afghans died amid gunfire on the second day of protests as a joint coalition-Afghan team began investigating the burning with a visit to the Parwan detention facility on the base where it occurred in a trash dump.
“The purpose of the investigation is to discover the truth surrounding the events which resulted in this incident,” U.S. Marine General John Allen, the top NATO coalition commander in Afghanistan, said in a statement yesterday. “We are determined to ascertain the facts, and take all actions necessary to ensure this never happens again.”
Earlier in the day, crowds of men turned violent, throwing stones and in some cases attacking offices or shops across Kabul and three nearby provinces of eastern Afghanistan, according to local government spokesmen and residents reached by phone. In addition to the seven dead, 30 people were injured, according to a statement e-mailed by the Interior Ministry.
The U.S. embassy in Kabul halted travel by its staff, and American authorities apologized at every opportunity, even organizing an impromptu appearance by the coalition military spokesman via videolink to the Pentagon press corps.
About 2,000 people gathered in a protest outside the Parwan detention facility two days ago and almost broke in before forces used helicopters and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, German Army Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson told the Pentagon reporters. Yesterday, the crowd was smaller in front of the Parwan facility, and at least four other demonstrations in Kabul gathered 200 to 500 people each in front of sites used by foreigners, he said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai appealed for calm and asked people to await the outcome of the investigation, the Associated Press reported. He said citizens have a right to protest peacefully and urged Afghan security forces to protect the protesters rather than fight them.
The coalition hopes the investigation will yield, at least by this morning, “a very clear statement on what we see has happened on the ground,” Jacobson said. “We have seen the implications, the understandable anger of the people of Afghanistan about what they have seen.”
The U.S. embassy said in an e-mailed notice yesterday that it had “suspended all travel for embassy personnel in Kabul until further notice and ordered any personnel not at a secure compound to return to the embassy immediately.” The U.S. mission also halted staff members’ movements in the second- largest city, Kandahar, acting embassy spokesman Mark Thornburg said in a separate e-mail.
Protests erupted in the eastern city of Jalalabad and in Logar and Parwan provinces, which adjoin Kabul. They followed demonstrations the previous day outside Bagram airbase in Parwan.
It was there that Afghans found that U.S. soldiers had included Korans among other books dumped and burned as refuse. Bagram is the biggest U.S. base in Afghanistan.
U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who is in Afghanistan on a previously planned visit, also apologized for the incident in each of his meetings yesterday with Afghan Karzai, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and members of the country’s parliament. Allen has ordered training for all troops in “the proper handling of religious materials.”
The Koran burning has deepened damage to the international forces’ public image, Afghan and Muslim affairs analysts said in interviews.
The U.S.-led force in Afghanistan and other westerners often underestimate the reverence of Afghans and other Muslims for the Koran, said Sultan Shahin, an Indian analyst who runs New Age Islam, a website on Muslim and interfaith affairs.
“Americans often suppose that the Koran, as a book, is analogous to the Christian Bible, but in fact Muslims’ reverence for the Koran is more like the reverence that Christians feel for the person of Jesus,” he said in a phone interview in New Delhi. “For Christians, the divine vehicle of God’s message is Jesus, while Muslims see their prophet as fully human and the divine gift is the book.”
The U.S. embassy and the American-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, used their websites and Twitter messages to publicize apologies by U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “We honor and respect the religious practices of the Afghan people without exception,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters yesterday, citing a statement by Panetta.
The Taliban guerrillas fighting American forces “strongly condemn the U.S.’ violent action in dishonoring our holy book,” said the movement’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, in a phone interview. “These disbelievers have committed such acts several times in the past,” he said.
Despite the U.S. apologies, “this incident is a big victory for the Taliban because Afghans will believe what they say — that the foreigners are here to dishonor our book and Islamic culture,” said Abdurrahim Muqdader, a tribal elder in Parwan province, where the Koran burning and the first protest occurred. He said the incident will increase the danger in coming days of Afghan troops or police attacking U.S. soldiers in revenge.
The Korans were damaged after soldiers culled them, with other books, from a library at a prison for alleged Taliban and allied Islamic militant fighters, ISAF said in a statement. The volumes were thrown into a pile of debris for burning and pulled out by Afghan employees at the base.
“I was collecting pages from the Koran, some burned and some unburned, and two U.S. soldiers called for me to give the pages to them,” one such employee, Muhammad Nabi, said in a phone interview. “I told them, ‘Even if you kill me, I won’t give them to you,’” Nabi said.
An Afghan policeman shot dead two U.S. soldiers in April amid four days of protests across Afghanistan sparked when a Florida pastor, Terry Jones, oversaw the burning of a Koran at his church. In that upheaval, Afghan rioters killed 24 people, including seven international employees of the United Nations in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Afghans protested again last month when a video was posted on the Internet showing four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghans who may have been Taliban guerrillas. Panetta and other American officials condemned that incident.
–With assistance from James Rupert in New Delhi. Editors: John Walcott, Larry Liebert
To contact the reporters on this story: Eltaf Najafizada in Kabul at firstname.lastname@example.org; Viola Gienger in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at firstname.lastname@example.org; John Walcott at email@example.com