For another look at this issue, see Lauryn Oates’ article: Killing for a Book, or at Butterflies and Wheels.
Two or three days ago Jerry Coyne did a post on his website Why Evolution is True, about burning Qu’rans and killing people. The title gives us a clue as to the question to which he was seeking an answer: “Eight dead because four Qur’ans burned.” He begins by asking this pointed question:
How many lives does it take to expiate four charred books?
The answer should be – None! Books are made of paper. They neither feel nor see nor make plans for the future. They are human artifacts. And whether they are considered holy by some does not change this fact. They may, of course, be very valuable works of art, and their destruction might be considered an act or acts of wanton vandalism. Their destruction could, in some cases, amount to acts of incitement to violence. But in themselves books are inert things, and can be disposed of without reverence or ceremony. Certainly, those who burned the four Qu’rans in Afghanistan did not do so from any sense of malice or irreverence, and yet the discovery of some scorched pages led to hysterical protests which led to a mounting death toll which now, I think, stands at 20 or more. Some twenty lives lost because, without intending to offend, some books were burned! Is that a fair trade?
In the comment stream after Jerry’s post, the question arose, and was discussed in some detail, about how one might justify violence such as this, violence in which lives were traded for offended sensibilities. One commenter suggested that the justification of the protests
might take the form of seeing the protests as the outpouring of stored up anger and outrage over other things more serious than burning Qu’rans. Quoting from the New York Times article from which this picture was taken, this commenter took the view of the man who said:
“This is not just about dishonoring the Koran, it is about disrespecting our dead and killing our children,” said Maruf Hotak, 60, a man who joined the crowd on the outskirts of Kabul, referring to an episode in Helmand Province when American Marines urinated on the dead bodies of men they described as insurgents and to a recent erroneous airstrike on civilians in Kapisa Province that killed eight young Afghans.
“They always admit their mistakes,” he said. “They burn our Koran, and then they apologize. You can’t just disrespect our holy book and kill our innocent children and make a small apology.”
And that may seem to be a fair characterisation, but why did the act of disrespecting the dead and killing children not spark this level of protest? When little girls had acid thrown in their faces, why was there no comparable level of anger? Surely throwing acid and disfiguring little girls is much more horrible than burning books? When teachers were murdered and schools razed, why no protest? When Malalai Karkar was murdered, why did protestors not throng the streets of Kandahar?
One might at least try to understand it, if people’s lives were lost because they were protesting wanton disrespect shown to the dead, or what was deemed to be unnecessary collateral harm caused by military operations. But the to and fro-ing of the discussion, pointing out the harm that NATO involvement in Afghanistan has done, and countering with harms done by the Taliban, or other forces, doesn’t answer the question about the destruction of holy books and the religious offence taken thereat, and the deaths consequent upon the latter, no matter whose lives were taken, whether soldiers or protestors. We can do better than this.
The discussion reminded me of something that Nick Cohen says in his new book, You Can’t Read This Book:
Because it is easier to expose abuses of power in democracies, and because Western radicals are most concerned about abuses of power in their own countries, they assume that democratic abuses are the major or only abuses of power worth protesting about. Their parochial reasoning leads to the most characteristic of left-wing betrayals. Radicals either dismiss crimes committed by anti-Western forces as the inventions of Western propagandists or excuse them as the inevitable, if regrettably blood-spattered, consequences of Western provocation. The narcissism behind their reasoning is too glaring to waste time on. [293-294]
That seems to me what is going on in this case. The West, it is assumed, has no reason to be in Afghanistan at all, so anything that locals may do is excused by the alleged illegitimacy of the NATO presence. Meanwhile, important issues are simply ignored. It is ignored that Al Qaeda, now largely a spent force, but by no means necessarily out for the count, masterminded, from its refuge in Afghanistan, one of the most dramatic acts of terrorism ever committed. It ignores the fact that the Taliban, then in power in Afghanistan, refused to hand over the mad religious fanatics who, in a gradually escalating series of attacks, had challenged American presence in the region, and caused the deaths of so many Americans. It ignores the fact that, in its years in power, the Taliban, with calculated cruelty, had made a public spectacle of the murder of women, and had reduced women in Afghanistan to a status little better than cattle, all in the name of the holy book whose supposed “desecration” has been the occasion for so many pointless deaths.
Just to keep things in perspective, remember how the Taliban treated women, and how women will be treated when NATO forces have left Afghanistan. The denial of women’s human rights is arguably central to the war of Islamism on the West and the perpetuation of the very male myth of Islamic power and prestige. Wikipedia has a fairly detailed entry on the subject of the Taliban treatment of women; Physicians for human rights issued, in 1998, a report on the Taliban’s war on women, the opening statement of which deserves to be remembered.
The Taliban is the first faction laying claim to power in Afghanistan that has targeted women for extreme repression and punished them brutally for infractions. To PHR’s knowledge, no other regime in the world has methodically and violently forced half of its population into virtual house arrest, prohibiting them on pain of physical punishment from showing their faces, seeking medical care without a male escort, or attending school.
It is important to bear this in mind, because this is the mindset that sent educated men to hijack planeloads of people and fly them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.
None of this is meant to justify or support either the NATO presence in Afghanistan — whose purpose seems to grow more tenuous with each passing day — or the actions of Muslim fanatics. These things lie behind the protests over the burned Qu’rans. Much of the horror since 9/11 can be explained by the fact that people hold the Qu’ran to be sacred, and the defence of each physical instance of it to be worth human lives. Shifting the issue to the question of who is ultimately justified in their actions, the Taliban or NATO, is hopelessly misleading. The offence to religious sensibility by the burning of books considered by some to be sacred was the immediate cause of the deaths of several people. There is surely something deeply troubling about this, and if you think that it can simply be explained away by losing the question in a thicket of argument over who is responsible for the troubles in Afghanistan, then you simply do not understand the power of religion to move people to acts of desperate inhumanity. Look at the face of the old man in the picture above, contorted by hatred and anger. How can the burning of a book do this?