Remember Terry Jones? He’s an eccentric Florida pastor with a tiny church, who has been threatening to burn a Koran for a while, an action he said was intended to “stop Islam.” More specifically, he said he wanted to “say stop to Islam, stop to Islamic law, stop to brutality.”
Burning a Koran does not stop any of those things, but Jones finally went ahead and did it anyway a couple of weeks ago. He got a lot of press coverage when he made his original threats, at the height of the Ground Zero Mosque flap, but hardly anyone noticed when he got around to holding his “trial” of the Koran and sentenced it to death by barbecue.
Somehow the news made its way to the mountains of Afghanistan a few weeks later, because demonstrators gathered around the United Nations compound to express their rage at the Koran burning. Suddenly gunfire broke out, leaving at least a dozen people dead, and portions of the compound on fire. Later reports from Reuters and the Associated Press stated that two of the dead were beheaded, while four of the “demonstrators” were killed in the exchange of fire.
An update from Reuters at 2:00 PM Eastern time raised the death toll to 20 U.N. staff, and says the provincial governor believes “insurgents used the march as cover to attack the compound.” That makes the situation sound more like an opportunistic attack by Taliban forces than a spontaneous expression of Islamic rage. More details are sure to be forthcoming.
Headlines across the Internet are still describing this as a murderous rampage over the Koran burning. ABC News, for example, titled their report “U.N. Staffers Killed In Afghanistan Over Terry Jones Koran Burning.” CNN declared “U.N. Workers Killed In Reported Koran Burning Protest.” Almost every other major news agency followed suit.
Now, let’s not be coy. Murderous violence in response to a perceived insult against the Koran is not unprecedented. A false Newsweek report in 2005 about Korans being flushed down toilets at Guantanamo Bay resulted in riots that killed at least nine people across the Muslim world. I’m not going to pretend I would be shocked if those who attacked the U.N. compound end up having some connection with the demonstrators.
Still, if that is not what just happened in Afghanistan, it is important to get the story straight. I can understand why both U.N. authorities and the media might report the way they have in the initial confusion, and whoever perpetrated these attacks deserves whole-hearted condemnation, but if the original crowd of demonstrators truly were angry but peaceful, they don’t deserve a murder rap.
After the Koran was burned, but before the violence broke out, Afghan president Hamid Karzai called the act “a crime against religion,” and “called on the U.S. and the United Nations to bring to justice those who burned the holy book,” according to the Associated Press. Sorry Mr. Karzai, but we have this thing called the First Amendment, and if you want to bring an American citizen to “justice” for a “crime against religion,” you’ll have to get past the U.S. military to do it.
That works both ways. There is nothing wrong with declaring that Pastor Jones is a bonehead, or objecting to his actions in the strongest terms. If that’s what the demonstrators in Afghanistan were doing, and they had absolutely no connection to the insurgents who attacked the U.N. compound, then they understand the principles of free speech better than their President.
Update: Having said all that, this U.N. Dispatch report does not paint a pretty picture of those “demonstrators.” It says the Afghan provincial governor has been lying about the insurgents, and the whole thing really was an Islamic rage frenzy. The author thinks the U.N. should pull out of Afghanistan entirely.