How Anti-Islam Movie Helps the Taliban

Anti-Islam film gets two thumbs down from Kabul and Islamabad, but Taliban recruiters say it’s a smash hit. Sami Yousafzai reports.

09.18.12 8:45 AM ET

If the makers of the rabidly anti-Islam Internet movie trailer Innocence of Muslims wanted blood in the streets, they got their wish—and there may be even more to come in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where militants are eager to harness the rage. Although the troubled neighbors’ governments are doing their best to avoid violence at home, the effort is proving far from easy.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai quickly canceled a scheduled official visit to Norway and enlisted religious scholars to deliver Friday sermons urging their congregants to keep calm. At first it seemed to be working: the streets remained peaceful after Friday prayers (traditionally an occasion for riots in stressful times). But Afghan officials haven’t dropped their guard. “We have reports that the Taliban are hoping to turn peaceful demonstrations violent,” an intelligence officer for the Afghan government tells The Daily Beast. “We’re worried that armed elements might join the protests and attack U.S. and Afghan buildings and Western offices. We are watching everything carefully.” Sure enough, by Monday, young men were clashing with police in the streets of Kabul.

Riot police in Islamabad and other major Pakistani cities have so far managed to hold protesters back from America’s diplomatic missions, but the skirmishes show no signs of stopping. On Monday Pakistan’s prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, ordered that all YouTube access to be cut off until the site removes the offending movie clip.

But the horse is already out of the barn. Hundreds of protesters gathered this past weekend at Islamabad’s historic Red Mosque (a hotbed of militant Islamism in the past). They shouted anti-U.S. slogans, waved anti-U.S. banners and placards, and cheered a succession of anti-U.S. speakers including Hamid Gul, the retired general and former chief of Pakistan’s top spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, who delivered a characteristically paranoid diatribe against Washington. “The blasphemous clips are part of an American strategy to hurt Muslims’ feelings worldwide,” he declared. “Through such blasphemies they [the U.S. government] want to test the Muslims’ response.”

Nevertheless, he promised, any such strategy is sure to backfire. “Blasphemy and other disrespect to Muslims only creates a vacuum for al Qaeda to catch more young Muslim and join their anti-Western agenda,” said the general, who has made no secret of his personal enthusiasm for militant Islamists.

The protesters roared their approval as speaker after speaker demanded that the Pakistani government expel the U.S. ambassador. Some in the crowd went further. Khalid Khan, a 35-year-old software engineer with a long beard and white cap, told The Daily Beast that every Muslim country should immediately send home all U.S. ambassadors until Washington enacts a law to punish “devil-mind Americans” like the filmmakers.

The argument was echoed by Qari Sahib Shah, a 22-year-old madrassa student carrying a placard saying DEATH TO AMERICA and WE LOVE THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD. “The U.S. government should ban such people,” he said. “Why not simply make a law in the U.S. to make sure no one insults any other religion? Americans make laws every day. Why not for this purpose?” As things stand, he’s furious. “After hearing the blasphemous clips insulting our beloved prophet, I would not hesitate to go after revenge.”

Revenge seemed to be on many minds. “After hearing those Americans’ disgraceful stuff, I’ve been thinking I should close my book, go straight to Afghanistan, and overrun a U.S. base, just to prove that a Muslim can give up everything for our beloved Prophet Muhammad,” said another madrassa student, Ajmal Shah, 23. “Every month we are hurt by non-Muslims making cartoons in Denmark, making films in the U.S. It’s the collective policy of the nonbelievers to hurt Muslims.” Khalid Khan agreed: “We regard blasphemy as a deliberate part of the West’s agenda,” he said. “If it’s not, why don’t they stop such people?”

Afghanistan’s insurgents are declaring victory. “We have already registered our protest by attacking a U.S. base where British Prince Harry was staying,” says Mullah Salih Khan, a Taliban commander in Helmand province. The insurgents have repeatedly claimed that last week’s assault on Camp Bastion, the joint U.S.-British military facility in Helmand province where Prince Harry is stationed as a helicopter pilot, was a direct response to the discovery of the trailer on the Internet. Non-Taliban analysts have dismissed the claim, saying the insurgents could not possibly have planned and trained for such a complex raid on such short notice.

That’s not stopping the Taliban from bragging about it. The attack left two U.S. Marines dead and wrecked more than $200 million worth of American aircraft and ground facilities. “In Afghanistan we don’t believe in peaceful demonstrations,” says the commander. “Our way of protesting is to go and kill Americans.” He says ordinary Afghan civilians were so infuriated that they joined the insurgents in the assault on Camp Bastion. “Protesting for a few hours, chanting, and then going home is not the answer to blasphemy and U.S. policies,” he says. “We tell Afghans, do you want soldiers of a country where they insult the Prophet staying in your homeland? The answer is no.”

The truth is that Taliban leaders could scarcely be happier about the film. After all, it’s the best recruiting tool they’ve had in months. A former cabinet minister from Afghanistan’s toppled Taliban government recalls other cultural offenses that fanned anti-U.S. anger among Afghans: the mistaken burning of Qurans in a dump at the Baghram detention facility, the Internet video showing U.S. troops urinating on the corpses of dead insurgents. “We have seen in the past how such incidents raise Taliban recruitments,” he says. “Certainly this one will do so again.”