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Professors discuss unrest, protests in Afghanistan

Kristen Durbin | Friday, April 8, 2011

After an American pastor burned a Quran last month and provoked protests throughout Afghanistan, Professor Michael Desch, chair of the political science department, said the conflict will significantly influence the relationship between the Middle East and the United States.

“The protests are disturbing not only because lives were lost, but more worrisome over the long term is the fact that the protests are taking place in areas of the country with no significant Taliban presence,” he said. “It indicates that things are really fragile, perhaps more than we realized.”

Florida Pastor Terry Jones publically threatened to conduct a “trial on the Quran” last year. He then burned the sacred Muslim text with members of his church on March 20.

United States President Barack Obama, Army Gen. David Petraeus and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were among public officials who publicly condemned Jones’ actions.

Desch said Gen. Petraeus made an impassioned plea last year to Jones against burning the Quran in hopes of steering him away from the act.

“Apparently, Jones didn’t listen to [Petraeus], and now he has blood on his hands,” Desch said.

While nonviolent protests continue throughout Afghanistan, angry demonstrators stormed a United Nations compound in Mazar-e-Sharif April 1. The attack killed 12, including seven U.N. employees, and left dozens wounded.

A Tuesday protest at Kabul University attracted over 1,000 peaceful supporters.

Despite current tensions, David Campbell, associate professor of political science, said the United States’ reaction to Jones’ actions has been positive.

“I think this whole incident has actually shown the religious tolerance within the United States because this pastor’s tiny church has basically abandoned him,” Campbell said. “At the very least, I hope the U.S. can make the point that [Jones] is a fringe person and that Americans are actually quite comfortable with other religions, including Islam.”

Both Desch and Campbell emphasized the political and military significance of Gen. Petraeus’s public denouncement of Jones’s actions.

“The fact that [Petraeus] has spoken out is significant because he wouldn’t get involved in something unless American lives were at stake,” Campbell said.

Campbell said religious pluralism is widely accepted in the United States, but discourse on faith should be respectful and inoffensive to another religion’s sacred objects.

Campbell said the fact that no prominent American religious leaders have publicly endorsed Jones’ actions shows Americans generally consider him to be an extremist who speaks for no more than a small number of people.

“In the United States, people are very comfortable with proselytizing and interfaith discourse, but we’ve worked out a way for those sorts of exchanges to occur within the bounds of reason,” he said. “In general, people are not going to do things that are deliberately offensive to what others find sacred.”

While debate about the construction of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in New York remained balanced and peaceful, Campbell said Jones’ disrespectful actions should not be considered in the same vein of discourse.

“It’s one thing to criticize Islam or the cultural center and self-promote one’s religion within the bounds of reason, but things move into the category of offensive when people deliberately desecrate something holy,” he said. “For example, putting the ‘Eucharist on trial’ would offend a lot of Americans.”