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A Feminist on Afghanistan: Qur’an Burning and More

It’s About More Than Just the War
Reactions of Qur’an Burning: Part One
By Karen Leslie Hernandez
Theologian- United States of America
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It is about a people that have a great love and appreciation of their country and understand the deep history it evades.

The United States military has had a presence in Afghanistan since 2001. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US military invaded Afghanistan to one, find Osama bin Laden, and two, wage a “war on terrorism.” Has this war succeeded?

In the last ten years, Osama bin Laden was found and killed, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are slightly weakened, but, unfortunately, terrorism has only been slightly thwarted, and not all together stopped, as the US hoped to do.

I have a lot of interest in Afghanistan. I wrote my thesis on Al-Qaeda while at Wellesley College because I wanted to understand why 9/11 happened. Now, I have a better understanding of the history and of religious extremism.

I also take interest in Afghanistan because as a feminist, I watch with intrigue, horror, and hope, the women of this country and all they endure. I also watch with interest, as the Afghan people, time and time again, rise up after colonization, invasion after invasion, religious extremism, war, and destruction.

Afghanistan is by far one of the most fascinating, beautiful, and troubled countries on the planet. In this column entry and my next entry in two weeks, I will focus on the US Military’s accidental burning of the Holy Qur’an, as well as on Staff Sergeant Robert Bales’ shooting and killing of seventeen innocent Afghan civilians.

I believe what most people do not understand is what the Holy Qur’an means to Muslims. When I am teaching about Islam to non-Muslims and I speak about the Qur’an, I explain that without the Qur’an, Islam might not exist.

I explain that the Qur’an is literally the Word of God, as revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad.

The Burning!

We can read the facts of the Qur’an burning in such articles from the New York Times where soldiers unknowingly burned several copies of the Qur’an before becoming aware of what they were doing.

Protests mounted and over thirty Afghans lost their lives, as well as four American soldiers in the aftermath of violent protests surrounding the incident. President Obama did issue an apology, much to the chagrin of the Republican Party.

In my work, I understand that war atrocities are going to happen. We can view in our world’s history all the terrible consequences of war—from rape, to genocide, to the obliteration of infrastructure which forces people to leave their countries forever, to the anger enacted out by many who become terrorists, criminals, and are psychologically damaged forever.

War is not pretty and it carries destructive consequences far beyond that which we, whom have never been in a war, are capable of comprehending. This however, does not excuse stupidity.

Afghanistan has some of the richest, most provocative and amazing history in the world. You can find the old silk-road running through Afghanistan. The Zoroastrian religion began in Afghanistan. Some of the world’s first oil paintings from Buddhists can be found in remote caves in Afghanistan.

At one time, Afghanistan was the center of the Islamic civilization. And, in 1974, the United Nations designated Herat, Afghanistan, as part of the world’s cultural heritage.

In a country that literally has thousands of years of history and culture; in a country where Islam was first introduced around the year 652, and at one time was the center of Islamic civilization, I can imagine there are thousands of historical documents, books, items and yes, copies of the Holy Qur’an.

I have to ask, why is the US Military burning any kind of books at all before checking to make sure that what they are burning is not something of historical significance, or, in an Islamic country, like copies of the Qur’an? The fact is that obviously someone did not check as per usual with the military, someone was just “following orders.” This, I feel, is sheer stupidity and illustrates a callous nature toward a country that is in turmoil partly because of the presence of the United States military.

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Those who burned the copies will supposedly be held accountable, but, in my experience as a military wife, I can almost guarantee that those whom are punished will be the lower ranking individuals who actually carried out the orders, not those who issued the orders.

Knowing What Orders Mean

As a former United States Air Force spouse for thirteen years, I can assure you that when someone in the military is told to do something, there really is no room for questions or challenging authority. With a, I must do what I am ordered to do, mentality, this is the way the military operates.

I, like you, can only imagine why someone would give such an order as to burn any kind of book, but, it would be speculation, so, I cannot say for sure. However, in a country where the books and documents they are burning are in another language, I still question why there is not more careful observation of duties that are assigned of this nature, to make sure these types of mistakes never happen.

Those who burned the copies will supposedly be held accountable, but, in my experience as a military wife, I can almost guarantee that those whom are punished will be the lower ranking individuals who actually carried out the orders, not those who issued the orders.

I can say that the sentiment here in the United States over the burning has been lackadaisical because, for the most part, people do not understand what the Qur’an means to Muslims. The fact that Afghans are incensed by what they view as an atrocity, and, the fact that most Americans are out of touch with the war in Afghanistan and quite frankly, don’t really understand the history of the country, creates indifference and apathy.

This is not to say that there are Americans who do not care—there are.

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My opinion is that the Bible had many human hands touch it before it became the Bible, whereas the Qur’an was made whole and complete after the prophet's death.

Yes, Qur’an Is The Word of God

I believe what most people do not understand is what the Holy Qur’an means to Muslims. When I am teaching about Islam to non-Muslims and I speak about the Qur’an, I explain that without the Qur’an, Islam might not exist.

I explain that the Qur’an is literally the Word of God, as revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad.

Many times people say to me, “… but the Bible is the word of God as well.” My opinion is that the Bible had many human hands touch it before it became the Bible, whereas the Qur’an was made whole and complete within twenty years after the Prophet’s death.

Therefore, the Qur’an is, in my opinion, more authentic. As a Christian, I am sure many other Christians would scoff at this, and even be angry with me and challenge me—I can understand that. This is just what I have come to understand in my years of theological study.

It is in this understanding of how Muslims understand the Qur’an in their religion that I realize and comprehend why Afghans are so angry.

Americans invaded their country, looking for Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. In that invasion, there are consequences—collateral damage, depletion of resources, scarcity of food, rising violence against women and girls, terrorist acts throughout the country, destruction of property, destruction of copies of the Qur’an, and the destruction of a history so deep we will never know what’s been lost. This is why Afghans are so angry.

Can you blame them?

After the Qur’an burnings, many said that this incident was a further indicator that the United States needs to pull out of Afghanistan sooner, rather than later. While I agree, I also wonder how this country will ever recoup after ten years of war, which was preceded by years of Extremist rule with the Taliban, which was preceded by the Russians invading and ruling there, which was preceded by countless other invasions, wars and incidents that never seem to give this country and its people a chance to live a decent, long, thriving life, with dignity and freedom.

The life expectancy rate in Afghanistan is forty-eight years old. Women and girls still struggle to be independent, receive an education, and many live in fear of their lives. With a government struggling to retain its position of authority as the Taliban remains in control of much of the country, only time will tell if Afghanistan will thrive.

The reactions to the burning are about much more than the war.

It is about a country that struggles on a level most of us will never understand. It is about a people that have a great love and appreciation of their country and understand the deep history it evades.

It is about love of culture, tradition and religion. Until the United States understands this, and more, cares about this, relations between the two countries will unfortunately remain negative and violent.

Related Links:
“Burn Not!”- Interfaith Initiatives for the Qur'an
On the Tide of Terrorism: 9/11 as a Metaphor
After 10 Years, Did Terrorism Win?
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a Theologian with a focus in Christian-Muslim Understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism. She has a Master of Sacred Theology in Philosophy, Theology and Ethics with a focus in Religion and Conflict Transformation from Boston University School of Theology, '11; a Master of Theological Research in Christian-Muslim Understanding from Andover Newton Theological School, '07; and a BA in Peace and Justice Studies with a concentration in Islam from Wellesley College, '05. Besides OnIslam, Karen has published with Feminism and Religion, the Women's United Nations Report Network, State of Formation, The American Muslim, and The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. Karen currently lives in San Francisco where she is consulting with United Religions Initiative, is an Ambassador with the Council on the Parliament of the World Religions, and is working on several projects that will take her overseas in 2015.

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