Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Mazar Tragedy Tests Western Resolve
Country Director, IWPR Afghanistan
Protesters in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, incensed at the burning of a Koran by a Florida pastor, attacked a United Nations compound on April 1, killing seven employees, including three internationals. Four Afghans also died.
This and other deadly protests in Afghanistan raise questions about the international community's presence in the country.
The questions need to be answered, of course, and the role of the global community should be continually refined and revised as time and conditions change.
The wrong reaction, however, after ten years of war, humanitarian work, and the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars in Afghanistan, would be to recoil from the recent events in Mazar-e Sharif, and withdraw.
The angry mob that overran the United Nations compound was prompted by the actions of Florida Pastor Terry Jones and his Gainesville church, which ironically is called the Dove World Outreach Center.
On March 20 Jones and his friends burned a copy of the Koran, launching violent protests across Afghanistan, the worst of which was in Mazar-e-Sharif, leaving a death toll of 20 people in its wake.
Rather than reach out to the world in the spirit of peace, as the name suggests, Jones has ignited hatred and inspired death.
While the violent response to the senseless and aberrant behaviour of Jones and his group cannot be condoned, it demands examination.
Afghanistan has been called the graveyard of empires, and its land is littered with the bones and artefacts of ancient armies. Once powerful civilizations have come and gone, each leaving its imprint on this culture.
For the past 30 years, Afghanistan has been at war with either foreign forces or itself, leaving precious little time to build a society. Education has been sporadic, the economy has been in shambles, and governments have blown through the country like dust storms.
Statistics are revealing. Nearly 80 per cent of all Afghans live in rural areas, lacking easy access to services that most in the world consider vital: regular power, health care, education, and security.
While Afghanistan's birthrate ranks 17th in the world, its death rate is 2nd highest, as is the infant mortality rate. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is 45 years, in part because the country is ravaged by food and waterborne diseases.
The one constant that Afghans have is their religion. Afghans are deeply devout. As the winds of war have swirled, family and friends and have died or been killed, and regimes have come and gone, Afghans have clung to their religious faith.
So, when anyone from the outside world attacks or is perceived to attack Islam, this largely Sunni Muslim country reacts.
Pastor Jones uses baseless assumptions to justify his action.
He suggests that Islam is a religion of violence. If one looks at the military history of the past century, western/Christian counties have been far more aggressive than Islamic countries, and because of this Muslims feel themselves constantly on the defensive.
Additionally, Jones and his church do not reflect the sentiment of the vast majority of Americans, who along with most others in developed countries support the right of all to practice religion as they please.
Jones seems unaware that his actions insult not only Muslims around the world, but the millions of Muslims who live and work in the United States.
While Jones may have been exercising his right to free speech, he also seems oblivious to his own responsibilities, which include respecting other peoples' rights.
Jones' behaviour has served no useful purpose, and instead has fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment, making it harder for international organisations, as well as the military, to work in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries.
While the situation in Afghanistan is difficult at best, there is hope. It is a young country. The median age is now 18 years and the literacy rate is growing rapidly, climbing from about ten to nearly 30 per cent of the population.
A new generation of Afghans is growing up and in the next decade will begin to take control of the country. They are literate, computer savvy, multi-lingual and anxious to be part of the international community, not a victim of it.
The next decade will determine not only the future of Afghanistan, but also the future of South Asia, putting Afghanistan in a pivotal role for world peace.
The country and the region need attention, not the mindless actions of people like Terry Jones.
To recoil from the tragedy that took place in Mazar-e Sharif, and ultimately withdraw from Afghanistan, would an even greater calamity.
Peter Eichstaedt is Country Director for IWPR Afghanistan.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.
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