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09.18.12

Afghanistan: Of Blasphemy and Suicide Bombers

Many Afghans were sick of the war. Now the anti-Islam film has people all revved up against the Americans. Sami Yousafzai reports.

The Taliban can always count on the Americans. The insurgents are well aware that the people of Afghanistan sometimes get fed up with the war and tired of the guerrillas’ justifications for it. Nevertheless, says an Afghan who served as a cabinet minister in the Taliban government before the 2001 U.S. invasion, whenever doubts rise about whether the fight against the United States is really worth it, the Americans are sure to do something to reenergize the Taliban cause.

Witness the scurrilous caricature of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in the U.S.-made movie trailer that has incited riots across the Muslim world in recent days. “We had been having a bit of trouble lately in some areas trying to persuade people that the Americans are here to hurt, not help,” says the former minister, who is not authorized to speak to the press. “In some places Afghans had risen up against the Taliban.” But now, he says, “they have no justification” for siding with the U.S.-backed Kabul government. He credits the insulting film clip titled “Innocence of Muslims” with helping the insurgents turn the tide: “This blasphemy by the Americans didn’t leave much more for the Taliban to explain.”

That view is a result of direct experience, the former minister says. “Speaking very personally, sometimes I haven’t been so sure that this really was a war of non-Muslims against Muslims,” he says. “But now I am convinced: the ‘war on terror’ is part of the crusader war by the U.S. and other non-Muslim states.” Many other Afghans have been similarly converted, he adds. “Public sentiment among the Afghan people is at a dangerous level, and those in the Army and the police will react first.” He mentions an Afghan police officer who killed four Americans this past Sunday at a checkpoint in Zabul province. “He was clearly not our man,” the former minister says. “He became a Taliban overnight by listening to the radio news, and he reacted within five hours.”

Taliban members say the case was not unique. Muhammad Sarfida, a commander in Helmand province, tells of a meeting that was called by another provincial military leader, Mullah Naeem Akhund, immediately after Afghans first heard about the blasphemous film. He says by the time Mullah Naeem finished delivering a 10-minute speech, 20 civilians had volunteered to join his team of 10 Taliban fighters in attacking Camp Bastion, the joint U.S.-British airbase where Prince Harry is stationed. “Two of them were just young boys,” says Sarfida. “They finished their farm chores and went straight to avenge the Prophet Muhammad.” The attack killed two U.S. Marines and destroyed millions of dollars worth of military equipment. “If we could manage so many recruits, thousands of Afghans would join us under the slogan ‘revenge for Muhammad,’” says Sarfida.

The hate film’s death toll continues to rise. On Tuesday a young woman rammed an explosives-packed Toyota Corolla into a minivan near the Kabul airport, killing all 12 passengers in the minivan and two pedestrians.

“We could accept that the Americans kill us, just as we kill U.S. and NATO troops,” says a guerrilla commander, “but I wish we could get them to agree that it’s a violation of the rules of war to insult the Prophet and Islam.”

The depth of Muslims’ rage against the movie can be hard for many Westerners to comprehend. “We could accept that the Americans kill us, just as we kill U.S. and NATO troops, but I wish we could get them to agree that it’s a violation of the rules of war to insult the Prophet and Islam,” says Mullah Yunus Akhund, a Taliban commander in Kandahar province. Muslims would never think of retaliating in kind against Christians’ attacks on the prophet, says Mullah Muhammad Qureshi, a cleric in Peshawar. “We respect Jesus and Moses, just as we do Muhammad,” he says. “In our religion, it is the same level of hurt and insult whether someone blasphemes against Muhammad or Jesus.”

But couldn’t the anti-Islam movie be the work of a few ill-intentioned individuals, rather than an attack by the entire United States? “No, no!” says the former minister. “It’s the Americans’ collective mindset as expressed by those individuals.” As far as the Taliban is concerned, there’s only one way the United States could prove its good intentions: by arresting and prosecuting the filmmakers. “Why can’t we ask for the trial of someone who has hurt all Muslims?” the former minister asks. “America captures mujahedin from around the world, but its laws protect those who hurt millions of Muslims.”

The whole thing bothers him, he says. “Although it helps the Taliban to win recruits, I still wish no one would insult my Muhammad.”