Valuation of values, Koran burning and murder

Guest post by Nathan West*

Not everyone values every value quite the same way.  Europeans, before WWI, typically ranked war as a noble endeavor.  Women were, until recently, thought in most of the Western world to be fit for the kitchen, or, as Kinky Friedman sang, “Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed.” Now, we have some information regarding the way that a great many Afghans valuate their values regarding life.

Recently, there were two incidents in Afghanistan, widely reported.

First, members of the US military burned some Korans that had been used by prisoners to send messages.  The incident, had it involved the burning of bibles by non-Christians, might not have made many headlines.  However, it has been widely reported that the burning of Korans led to widespread rioting in Afghanistan, with many deaths.

Now, a US soldier has evidently committed a massacre, killing sixteen Afghan villagers, many of whom were children.  Thus far, there have been no riots (although there was at least one protest by Afghan students).  While, no doubt there will be a response from the Taliban – whether or not used as an excuse being beside the point here – the absence of riots thus far is itself a story.

The New York Times has sought answers to these disparate results.  The Times article, In Reactions to Two Incidents, a U.S.-Afghan Disconnect, is well worth reading because it is one of the franker reports to appear in the paper about the Islamic world.  One way to understand people is to ask them what they think. This, unlike much that is written about Afghanistan, was tried in this report; hence, its value to someone interested in actually understanding what makes people tick.

According to the Times, we learn that Afghans view religion as more important than the life of an individual.  Here is how the Times tells it:

“The mullah was astounded and a little angered to be asked why the accidental burning of Korans last month could provoke violence nationwide, while an intentional mass murder that included nine children last Sunday did not.

‘How can you compare the dishonoring of the Holy Koran with the martyrdom of innocent civilians?’ said an incredulous Mullah Khaliq Dad, a member of the council of religious leaders who investigated the Koran burnings. ‘The whole goal of our life is religion.'”

Of course, that is not the be all and end all to how these events are understood by Afghans but, if we go by this report, it is not a small part either.  And, quite a bit of what is revealed in the NYT report appears to follow from the set of values set forth by Mullah Dad.

“That many Americans are just as surprised that what appears to be the massacre of 16 people at the hands of an American soldier has not led to mass protests or revenge killings speaks volumes about a fundamental disconnect with their Afghan partners, one that has undermined a longstanding objective to win the hearts and minds of the population. After more than 10 years, many deaths and billions of dollars invested, Americans still fail to grasp the Afghans’ basic values. Faith is paramount and a death can be compensated with blood money.” [Emphasis added].

“To Muslims, and especially to Afghans, religion is much higher a concern than civilian or human casualties,” said Hafez Abdul Qayoom, a member of Afghanistan’s highest clerical body, the Ulema Council. “When something happens to their religion, they are much more sensitive and have much stronger reaction to it.”


“The Ulema Council, which is heavily influenced by the presidential palace, had immediately issued a passionate denunciation, saying of the Americans, ‘The human rights violators of the 21st century once more committed a wild, inhuman and shameful act and relentlessly martyred innocent children, women and men.’ But Mullah Qayoom said the quick reaction and prompt apology helped tamp down fury.

Afghan officials helped, too, by quickly paying compensation to the victims’ relatives, who are very poor and are part of a culture where ‘blood money’ is regularly paid for even accidental deaths. A high-level delegation brought the money on Tuesday to the village in Panjwai where the massacre happened, drawing an attack by Taliban insurgents.”

One has to ask whether this interpretation is unique to Afghan society or one that is common to most, if not all, of the Muslim regions. Given the rioting that has occurred all over the Islamic regions in response to perceived insults to Islam, I think that the Times may have stumbled upon a truth here, and one not limited to Afghanistan. It may be time for policy makers to read their Nietzsche (e.g. Twilight of the Idols, timeline “Turin, September 30, 1888, on the day when the first book of the Revaluation of All Values was completed”).

Of course, riots could still break out at any moment. But if they do, given the time involved since the event, we know that it will have been a deliberately instigated, not a spontaneous, incident. And, if tempers lead to violence, those tempers will have been pumped up, not based on outrage for committing a massacre – which, in the West, we would expect to be paramount to the Afghans –, but far more likely for attacking Islam.


*Nathan West is the pen name of an attorney who wishes to keep his identity private.

5 responses to “Valuation of values, Koran burning and murder

  1. I would like to add that anyone interested in Afghanistan might want to check out Terry Glavin’s very interesting perspective, reflected in his recently published book that is based on his visits to Afghanistan. A series of excerpts is available on Harry’s Place:
    — and as noted in the first post:
    “Come from the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan” reveals, among other things, the enormous gap between…the media-fed Western understanding of the country (which Terry labels “Absurdistan”) and the real, existing country in which the Afghan people live.”

  2. Well, since my name came up. . .

    Nathan has it only partly right, in one small way. He is unquestionably right that there are not a few hillbillies, Islamist nutters and semi-literate imams in Afghanistan who hold the pages of a koran to be of greater value than human life, just as there are not a few Christian Americans who routinely demonstrate that they hold human life (especially of the not-Bible-believing kind) in similar, if not equal, contempt.

    But Nathan is wrong to imply (and his post leaves no other possible inference) that Afghans, either as Afghans or Muslims, did not riot about the massacre in Panjwaii because of some higher regard for a book than for human beings.

    For one thing, more than 99 per cent of Afghans did not riot over the inadvertent burn-pit destiny of the scribbled-upon Bagram korans, and not a few of the non-rioters were far more furious with the idiotic rioting than with the burning of bits of paper. Quite a few of the koran rioters, to be fair, also took the incident to be an iteration of the contempt and betrayal to which they have been generally subjected by the Obama administration.There’s a lot of anxiety in Afghanistan these days about capitulation and abandonment. To many, and indeed invariably among Afghans I pay attention to, the koran incident seemed to be the epitome of that callous disregard.

    For another thing, Nathan might want to take into account the possibility that most Afghans appear to have understood the Panjwaii massacre to have been the unspeakably horrible tragedy that it was – by all accounts the act of a mentally disturbed and wholly rogue Yank whackjob.

    Riot? What’s to even “protest” about in the matter of something like that?

  3. Hello Mr. Glavin,

    I do not agree with you at all.

    I shall, by analogy, explain why I think your comment is misplaced. My wife is a refugee from the former Soviet Union. Where she came from, Jews had rocks thrown at them for being Jews. In fact, I think it would be a rather reasonable comment to make that the Ukraine, where she was from, was and remains decidedly among the most Antisemitic places, if not the most Antisemitic place, on Earth. Now, most Ukrainians did not throw rocks at Jews. Most Ukrainians were, as in most parts of the world, kindly, even towards Jews. Yet, enough Ukrainians did hate Jews that it was a really a terrible place for Jews to live and, in fact, Antisemitism defined the relationship between Jews and Ukrainians, notwithstanding the good heart of most people. At some periods, things were worse for Jews than at other times. There were always excuses for bad behavior, which was often stirred up by the needs of the government.

    In Afghanistan, we have the phenomena that certain things start riots, which lead to deaths. We have important religious leaders who state outright that they, themselves, value their religion (and believe their countrymen value religion) more than the life of an individual – the impact of the death of an individual life being something which can be made whole by the payment of money while, in the case of a perceived insult to one’s faith, riots ensue. No doubt, most Afghanistanis do not want to kill or get killed or want any part of things outside of their own life and personal needs. Most people are no doubt kindly. Most people, no doubt, have no opinion at all regarding the topics I addressed except to the extent instigated by those in their lives who influence opinion. No doubt that Afghanis may find this or that about the Obama adminstration troubling. That is no different than in the Ukraine or anywhere else on Earth. However, knowing that most people are private or are angry at Obama tells me very little of importance.

    What the imams say about their beliefs, by contrast, tells me a lot more than telling me that most people did not riot. Most people did nothing during the Russian Revolution or the French Revolution either. Most people are bystanders to history.

    In a country where tradition and, hence, religion are important, what a religious leader thinks is a thousand times more important to what will occur than the kindly souls of people of no particular collective importance. That may be an unfortunate comment but, if you read any history, you will realize that the kindness and concerns of average people have meant very little in the course of history. When those who substantially impact on events in a country view things a particular way, by contrast, they have a way to make their views the views that define a country. What they think is critically important.

    Have you some real evidence to suggest that the imams quoted by The New York Times are wrong?

    • Nathan, I guess your argument that the imams’ views count more than those of the average Afghani boils down to a similar thought I had: it’s the people with the guns that count — and this means of course the Taliban and similar fundamentalists. However, as I remember Terry’s writings, he has indeed (in addition to his own experience in the country) also some very interesting surveys with some rather surprising results that support the conclusion that a lot of Afghanis don’t want such a dominant role for religion.
      Another perhaps even more important point is that we can’t understand developments in Afghanistan without taking the role of Pakistan into account — see e.g. this relevant piece by Terry:

      I think there is much too little focus in the media on Pakistan — indeed, if all the media attention that is devoted to Israel was devoted to Pakistan, everybody would understand that this is a failed state that is bad for its neighbors (particularly Afghanistan) and even bad for its own people.
      What, if anything, can be done about this is another question, but in my view the velvet glove treatment Pakistan is getting most of the time from Washington isn’t particularly clever or helpful.

  4. “However, as I remember Terry’s writings, he has indeed (in addition to his own experience in the country) also some very interesting surveys with some rather surprising results that support the conclusion that a lot of Afghanis don’t want such a dominant role for religion.”

    The question I would ask would be what is meant by not wanting such a dominant role for religion. People may not want a return of the Taliban, which might be what is meant. Or, it might mean they want something like the US has, which might also be what is meant. I would bet that such polling, if accurate, would have results closer to the former than the latter. But, as always, we should go where the facts are.

    On Pakistan, I still remember reading Bernard-Henri Lévy’s book, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?. If Lévy is correct, Pakistan is likely the world’s most dangerous country, a country which worships – literally – the Bomb. That book was written some years back and, from the bit I have read about the country since, Lévy’s description of the country would appear to remain pertinent.

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