Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan Erupts Over Danish Cartoons

The extreme reaction to caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in a Danish newspaper demonstrates the faultlines in Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.
By Wahidullah Amani
A week of violent protests has left a dozen people dead and scores injured in Afghanistan as demonstrators expressed their anger over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad initially published in a Danish newspaper. The row has shown the gulf between the views held by a majority of Afghans and the moderate, Western-leaning government headed by President Hamed Karzai.

Karzai’s response also stands in sharp contrast to the views expressed by other parts of the Afghan government.

The president has appealed for calm and forgiveness in interviews both with the foreign press and with Afghan journalists.

“As much as we condemn [these cartoons], we as Muslims must have the courage to forgive this and not make it a matter of a dispute between religions and cultures… this does not mean that cartoons insulting Islam must continue to appear. They must definitely stop,” he said.

The president also tried to tone down the anti-Danish sentiment in the country.

“When I was in Denmark [in January], the prime minister, Mr [Anders Fogh] Rasmussen, spoke to me about this and he very much regretted what happened with the Danish newspaper. But he said, ‘Look, you understand that the press is free, what a newspaper does is not representative of the view of the people or government of Denmark,’” he said.

But this relatively mild reaction did not play well at home. Freedom of the press is not accepted as an explanation or excuse for the perceived insult to Islam, and Karzai’s statement made him seem out of touch with the mood of his people.

“Karzai does not reflect the sentiments of Afghans,” said Habibullah Rafi, political analyst and member of the Afghan Academy of Sciences. “People do not listen to him. They are disappointed in him.”

More in tune with the public’s general attitude is the harsh response by the country’s highest judiciary body.

“This act by the Danish press is in clear conflict with Islamic law and is an insult to our religion,” said Abdul Wakil Omari, head the Supreme Court’s publications department. “We are not satisfied with an apology from the newspaper; the government of Denmark should officially apologise to Muslims, and it should not allow its media to insult other religions in the future."

According to Omari, the Supreme Court was issuing an official statement to this effect.

Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf, head of the conservative Islamic party Dawat-e-Islami and a prominent member of parliament, called the publication a criminal act, and demanded a strong response.

“Muslims should react in such a way that in the future, no one else will ever dare to do anything like this again,” he told IWPR. “Muslims respect all religions and no one has the right to insult any of these religions,” he said.

Sayyaf called on the United Nations Security Council to condemn Denmark and any other countries that published the cartoons.

The lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, passed a resolution on February 4 calling for the offending editor to be put on trial. The resolution also condemned in strongest terms the country in which the offending caricatures first appeared.

“We call on the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to express the deepest hatred of Afghans for Denmark,” it said.

Many Afghans have heeded the call. Protests have exploded all across the country, from Maimana in the northern province of Faryab to Qalat, the provincial capital of the volatile south-eastern province of Zabul.

“This is not a simple case,” said Ghulam Hanif, who bears the honorific title “Maulawi” or high-ranking mullah. He was part of a demonstration in Mazar-e-Sharif, in the north of the country. “Denmark, the world Jewish community and the West are involved in a plot to show Islam as a backwards religion, a religion of terrorists.”

Maulawi Nasim Akhundzada, caretaker of the Kharqa shrine in Kandahar, said the protests would continue for a very long time.

“We will not stop the demonstrations until the editors of the papers are put on trial. It was a very bad thing that the Afghan president went to Denmark and met officials there,” he said.

In Herat, demonstrator Mohammad Nabi shouted anti-Danish slogans and called on Karzai to demand the removal of Denmark’s troop contingent from Afghanistan.

“Those who insult Islam should not be in our country. If the government does not do this, we will kill Danish troops anywhere we see them,” he said.

There are currently some 160 Danish troops in Afghanistan. NATO has not announced any immediate plans to withdraw them.

In Kabul, schoolteacher Shahnaz called for the editor’s execution, "If Muslims keep silent, there will more disrespect and violence against our religion and Prophet. Therefore a court in an Islamic country must execute this [editor.]”

Some have blamed the violence that has accompanied the demonstrations on “foreign elements” - shorthand for Pakistanis – whom they accuse of inciting peaceful demonstrators. In Zabul, the site of some of the worst demonstrations, police arrested more than 40 Pakistanis and charged them with having orchestrated the protests.

But others blame the deaths on lack of experience on the part of both police and protesters.

“In Afghanistan, people get killed in demonstrations because the police do not have enough experience of crowd control,” Rafi told IWPR. “They should be prepared for demonstrations, but they aren’t - they are sleeping. They should have tear gas and water tankers but they don’t.

“People here don’t know how to demonstrate, either. They throw stones, they break windows, and sometimes they have guns. Firearms are everywhere.”

Wahidullah Amani and Amanullah Nasrat are IWPR staff reporters in Kabul. Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif, Saleh Muhammad Saleh in Kandahar, and Ehsan Surwar Yar in Herat also contributed to this report.