As the dust settles in Afghanistan after sustained protest over a Florida pastor’s Quran burning, many residents in Kandahar are facing an unpleasant truth: More Qurans were burned in the course of their protests than by Terry Jones. The demonstrations, which started peacefully, quickly turned violent, killing at least nine people and injuring scores in Kandahar City alone. And as protesters vandalized a girls’ school and set fire to shops, Qurans also inadvertently went up in flames. “If they burn a shop, there is a Quran in every shop, so this is a big problem,” says Azizullah Aziz, a perfume and soap salesman in Kandahar City. “People don’t know how to protest.”
On Wednesday, the province’s top spiritual leaders moved to address the irony – and promote restraint at a time when passions are running high over the US war effort. They called a shura, or meeting, and told the crowd of several hundred people that gathered in a tent at Kandahar University how to protest in an Islamic manner.
Tooryali Wesa, the governor of Kandahar Province, says gatherings like this are important because, after three decades of war, civic expression is a foreign concept for many Afghans. “Demonstrations and protests are pretty young in the country, especially here in Kandahar. It’s not very usual, so people have to be educated about that,” says Mr. Wesa. Inside the tent, the mood was somber. Afghans sat cross-legged on carpets laid out over the dirt, receiving what amounted to a stern reprimand. Many looked down and thumbed prayer beads as various speakers shouted into microphones, delivering their passionate pleas for order at future demonstrations.
“One person burned the holy Quran in America. This was not good, so we came to speak out and protest, but unfortunately the police fired on us because they did not know what the protest was about,” said Maulavi Mohammed Omar, a prominent mullah in Kandahar. “Why did people burn the shops and markets, and the holy Quran? That is not good.”
Seek elders’ advice
Islam does not discourage protests, said the mullahs. But, they said, when something happens that causes concern, citizens must seek the advice of their religious leaders before taking action. They added that any protest should also have clear goals. “You have to respect what the mullahs say. If they say protest, you have to protest. If they say don’t protest, you can’t protest. They know the Islamic law for when to protest,” said Haji Rahmudeen, head of the Kandahar Business Association, in his address to the crowd.
The mullahs spoke with Afghan government officials before the meeting, but independently organized the event.
In addition to imploring citizens to maintain order during protests, the mullahs called on the government to better prepare the police to deal with protesters, ensure that government and international forces respect Islamic and Afghan culture, and stop international forces from conducting night raids, among other demands. There was much speculation that Wednesday’s event could end in yet another protest. Indeed, all the ingredients were there to stoke the ever-present well of anger over the ongoing foreign presence. During Mr. Omar’s speech, he reminded the crowd that America was still the enemy and its soldiers are “killing our 2-year-old children in our homes.” At an Afghan demonstration, such remarks would normally be met with shouts from the crowd and calls for “Death to America.” But on Wednesday, the crowd just quietly listened. When the event ended, few people stayed even to socialize as the crowd shuffled out of the tent, returning to their cars or bicycles. “We are serious about it. We don’t want these kinds of demonstrations in our province. If people want to react to something, they must do it in a peaceful way,” said Maulavi Enayatullah, a member of the religious scholar’s union in Kandahar city after attending Wednesday’s gathering.