In 1981, I was a young freelance journalist living with the Mujahideen, America’s allies in Afghanistan in their war against the Soviet Union. In every village I passed through, someone, it seemed, had a battery-powered radio. In the morning and at night, men listened to the BBC, sometimes to the Voice of America, in Pashtu or Dari, for news on the war. They laughed at Radio Moscow. They didn’t know where America was, or what an elevator was, or a skyscraper or an ocean, but they followed the news.
In 2008, when I last slept in Afghan villages, in the mountains, on the Pakistani border, I saw small radios that said “A gift from ISAF,” the American-led coalition, stamped, on them. Today, there are many news outlets in Afghanistan. Every Afghan will know, through radio and the grapevine, the news that Americans burned the Quran.
In every home in every village in Afghanistan, there is one book, the Quran, often wrapped in a black-and-green cloth, sitting in a hollowed-out shelf in a mud-baked wall, covered in dust. It is the most precious item in the house. Virtually no one can read it, but it is the word of God, the source of their hope, their salvation, and the glue that bound different ethnic groups and tribes, and a nation, together, as they fought the infidel Soviet invaders. When Afghans fled their villages they took what they, and maybe a donkey or a camel, could carry on their backs, and the Quran. It is the same today.
If the U.S. is to succeed at all in Afghanistan, it must realize how sacred, even compared with other Muslim nations, the Quran is to Afghans. There is a ritual to even touching it. Watch President Hamid Karzai, in any news video, when he holds the Quran. Al Qaeda had power in Afghanistan in part because its leaders spoke Arabic, the language of the Quran.
In 2008 I was kidnapped by the Taliban in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Every day my jailers listened to the Voice of America. Once, my interpreter complained of a toothache and one of my bodyguards, a Qari—one who has memorized the Quran, which gave him authority—wrote a verse from the Quran on a piece of paper and my interpreter put it between his teeth and the next day he said his toothache was gone.
My jailer said I had to convert to Islam if I hoped to survive. The Taliban gave me books on Islam to read. One day I was reading one of the books and grew tired from reading in the dark and put it on floor. There were verses from the Quran in the book. A bodyguard and my interpreter told me to pick the book up immediately. I could not put anything with a verse from the Quran on the floor. I put it on top of my notebook, but it was still too close to the floor. I put the book on my cot and they relented. The Qari spent weeks sitting on his cot reciting in a sing-song chant the entire Quran. Men listened to him, gathering strength. When he finished, our jailers gave us all a sugary treat. The Taliban commander said if I converted to Islam I would no longer have to wear glasses.
I grew up in a Christian household. When I was a boy, we never put a book on top of the Bible in our house. Magnify this a hundred times in a land where every morning men go to the mosque in their villages to hear a sermon before going to work, where people pray by the road, by mountain streams, and in empty fields, where men save throughout their entire lives so they can go on hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, and be able to put hajji, an honorific, in front of their names, and you can begin to understand the importance of Islam in Afghanistan and how Afghans feel about the Quran.
I have seen in the photographs and video of Afghans rioting that many are Tajiks, U.S. allies in the war against the Taliban, who are Pashtuns. The Interior Ministry, where two U.S. officers were killed, is dominated by Tajiks. All Afghans know, from listening to their radios, that U.S. Marines urinated on dead Afghans, that U.S. aircraft have killed boys herding sheep and gathering firewood, that in February 2011 Gen. David Petraeus suggested to Karzai that Afghan parents burned their children to exaggerate civilian casualties. The Taliban kill far more civilians than Western forces, but Afghans blame the foreigners. They see the corruption of the Western-backed government all around them.
The U.S. must find a way to show Afghans that we truly respect them and their scripture. U.S. soldiers, and other foreigners, must stop calling them “hajjis,” or rag heads, as some journalists did in the 1980s. Foreigners must take off their sunglasses and show their eyes. With every night raid, and every time a foreigner enters a house without taking off his shoes, we anger people. The U.S. military should provide a booklet on Afghan culture and the role of Islam and the Quran to all its personnel in Afghanistan, just as it provided a booklet on Italian culture and its monuments to every GI before the invasion of Italy in World War II. Every foreigner should read this booklet.
The largest and tallest building in Kabul is a grain silo and bread factory, built by the Soviets. The U.S. has poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan. It has built roads and schools and health clinics. It must build something large and important, like, say, a water purification plant, or maybe a mosque, as a symbol, to show that it cares about the people, not just its own interests. Perception is reality.
Men in every village in Afghanistan are watching us and listening to their radios. Every morning, in every village, mullahs are preaching.
Jere Van Dyk is the author of “Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban”.