I think most sensible people understand that the current uproar in Afghanistan over the desecration of the Quran isn't really just about the defiling of a holy book.
But if there's sense in the world, there's also nonsense. Enter Tom Friedman's New York Times column today (2/29/12):
U.S. troops accidentally burned some Qurans, and President Obama apologized. Afghans nevertheless went on a weeklong rampage, killing innocent Americans in response–and no Afghan leader, even our allies, dared to stand up and say: "Wait, this is wrong. Every week in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, Muslim suicide bombers kill other Muslims–holy people created in the image of God–and there's barely a peep. Yet the accidental burning of holy books by Americans sparks outbursts and killings. What does our reaction say about us?" They need to have that conversation.
Yes, Mr. Friedman–when are those people ever going to come out against suicide bombers?
The political act he's recommending would be, in any country in the world, bizarre. In Afghanistan, though, it's downright insulting. That country has been under a deadly military occupation for over a decade (not to mention the previous military occupation, the periods of deadly civil war, and so on). The current occupation has led to thousands of deaths, either at the hands of the military occupation or in other attacks. To demand that anyone living under such circumstances denounce their own people for being the real problem is just bizarre.
All this, of course, takes Friedman's claim of Afghan silence at face value–a dangerous proposition, to be sure. In 2003 he demanded to know why anti-war protesters in London weren't expressing any outrage over attacks on British targets in Turkey. They actually had done so, but Friedman was unaware–as he explained in a subsequent correction. Why people opposed to their own government's war should stop opposing that war because of other violence in the world was unclear anyway.
But the demand that Muslims finally speak out against terrorism is a regular feature of Friedman's work. On October 12, 2005, he wrote:
When a Sunni Muslim jihadist blows up a Shiite mosque–a mosque–during Ramadan–Ramadan–and virtually no one in the Sunni world utters a word of condemnation, it means there is no controlling moral authority in the Sunni Muslim community anymore.
He added that a "civilization that tolerates suicide bombing is itself committing suicide."
A suicide bombing in Iraq in 2007 led him to write (3/2/07):
But worst of all, Muslims, the very people whose future is being killed, are also mute. No surge can work in Iraq unless we have a "moral surge," a counternihilism strategy that delegitimizes suicide bombers. The most important restraints are cultural, societal and religious. It takes a village–but the Arab-Muslim village today is largely silent
And on December 16, 2009, Friedman wrote:
How many fatwas–religious edicts–have been issued by the leading bodies of Islam against Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda? Very few. Where was the outrage last week when, on the very day that Iraq's Parliament agreed on a formula to hold free and fair multiparty elections–unprecedented in Iraq's modern history–five explosions set off by suicide bombers hit ministries, a university and Baghdad's Institute of Fine Arts, killing at least 127 people and wounding more than 400, many of them kids?
Spelling out the terrible burden of the colonial superpower, Friedman demanded: "So please tell me, how are we supposed to help build something decent and self-sustaining in Afghanistan and Pakistan when jihadists murder other Muslims by the dozens and no one really calls them out?" Then he finished that, umm, thought: "If we want a peaceful, tolerant region more than they do, they will hold our coats while we fight, and they will hold their tongues against their worst extremists."
Of course, there are always voices condemning violence of any sort. The fact that Friedman doesn't hear them doesn't mean they don't exist.
His problem is much deeper. In the current round of violence, for instance, Friedman cannot believe that these people get so upset about some books thrown in the trash. A more rational observer would understand that Afghans have deeper grievances against the presence of U.S./NATO forces. You can get the point of HDS Greenway's column in the GlobalPost (2/28/12) from the headline alone: "It's the Occupation, Not Just the Quran Burnings." As Greenway wrote:
There have just been too many wedding parties bombed, and too many homes broken into by men-from-Mars-looking foreign soldiers, and too many foreigners telling Afghans what to do.
And it's a bit much to listen to Tom Friedman complain about people who do not speak out against terrorism, since he's explicitly endorsed it. In 2009 Friedman endorsed as "logical" the Israeli attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in Lebanon–as he had done in 1999 when he called for "12 weeks of less than surgical bombing" in Serbia. To say nothing of his endorsement of the Iraq War–"American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad," as he so famously put it, telling people there to "Suck. On. This."
To turn Friedman's question around: What does it say of a society where someone who calls for such violence is treated as an important and wise foreign policy thinker? And what does it say about the people who print this stuff in newspapers?