Afghanistan Riots: How Some Young Afghans are Using Social Media to Call for Calm

Afghanistan is in the grip of a recurring nightmare. Yesterday, five days into a wave of countrywide rioting over the inadvertent burning of Korans at Bagram Air Base and two days after the Taliban called on Afghan police and soldiers in Kabul to turn on Westerners, an Afghan policeman fatally shot two American advisers inside the heavily guarded Ministry of Interior.  The shootings prompted NATO to immediately pull all of its advisers from Afghan government offices.

Since these latest riots kicked off last week, dozens of Afghans have been killed in violent confrontations with the Afghan police, who are still poorly trained and equipped to handle angry crowds.

Demagogic politicians and religious leaders have predictably seized the destruction of the Korans at Bagram as an all-too-easy opportunity to elevate their standing in a country cracking along ideological and social fault lines. With megaphones and calls for vengeance, they have urged the demonstrators to keep up the pressure.

While foreign military bases have easily withstood the rioters’ fury, Afghan schools, shops, banks, clinics, and government offices have been badly damaged and major roads have been blocked by crowds of men wielding sticks, rocks, and rifles. Non-participating Afghans –the majority of Afghans, that is– have watched with familiar helplessness as their lives and livelihoods have been thrown into chaos yet again.

The effect of the riots on Afghanistan’s expatriate community has been chilling as well. To avoid the gruesome fate of the seven international UN staff who were lynched during similar riots last year, most foreigners have stayed in their houses this time around, behind heavy doors and armed guards, or have left the country – some only temporarily, others for good.

Though the desecration of the Korans at Bagram caused grave offense to Afghans generally (demonstrably more so than the killing of civilians by any party in the conflict), not everyone in Afghanistan is literally up in arms over the incident.

Amidst the ongoing violence, many of the young, media-savvy Afghans I know have turned to social networking sites to express their dismay at the destruction wrought by the riots.

A few of their reactions:

“My 10 yrs-old brother doesn’t want to go to school today,” my friend Hameed, an entrepreneur in the eastern city of Jalalabad, tweeted on Thursday, “They [police and rioters] shoot kids, he says.”

A civil society activist from Kabul posted the following personal reaction on facebook.

It is wrong to disrespect the holy book of millions of people and burn it, but it is also wrong to protest it in a way that it leads to the death of 9 people. When the Taliban burn our houses and schools, aren’t copies of Quran burnt? When A child is killed at a suicide attack, isn’t there a Quran or a religion book in her bag with texts from Quran and Hadith? If it is wrong, it is wrong no matter who does it and we have the right to speak against us, but why do we do so by being violent and killing and hence by proving the misconception that Muslims are violent right? Shame on both sides. Today my family and many other families were worried in Kabul that someone would use the demonstrations to attack civilians, like usual, and it happened. By putting our own people in danger, causing the death of Afghans and by spreading hatred against entire nations (death to USA, etc) we are trying to protect our religion? This just sounds really illogical to me.

Others approvingly re-posted the following message written by an anonymous Afghan facebook user.

My dear and beloved brothers and sisters!

At least we all know that Quran is our sacred book, which teach us the way of life. It teaches us how to live peacefully and let others live unless they harm us. And after all that Allah has given us the promise to protect this book till the end.

Moreover, let us think with ourselves why people are disrespectful to this knowledgeable book? And why aren’t we able to look after ourselves instead of our foreign friends taking care of us? And lastly, why can’t we just demonstrate our anger on this action through more peaceful means?

The answer is; unfortunately we don’t know anything about the vested knowledge in Quran, and even if we know it, we don’t put it in action, that’s why we are in misery

Therefore, Let us begin with understanding the verses of Quran instead of holding bloody demonstrations that result in our own destruction.

I request my dear friends to spread the word to those who can’t read and write and those with low level of knowledge. This won’t just help protect people but will help you walk the city streets peacefully the next morning!

Thank you very much for your precious time.

If the international community can do some good in Afghanistan at this late hour –and I believe it still can— it will have to invest in the civic and youth leaders working against daunting odds to reduce the sway of destructive forces in their country. In the years ahead, they will need powerful allies.