As an Afghan-American, I was deeply affected by the news about a 27-year-old Afghan woman named Farkhunda who was savagely murdered by young Afghan men in the city of Kabul on March 19. Her crime? She was falsely accused of burning the Quran. The horrific nature of this murder in broad daylight in the middle of Kabul and in the presence of hundreds of onlookers and police officers, who at times acted as accomplices to the murder, affected me to my core.
Farkhunda was severely beaten, stoned, her body thrown off a roof, put under a car, dragged behind a car, thrown in a semi-dry river polluted with filth, and lit on fire by a murderous crowd who chanted “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is Great) and “Death to Israel.” As soon as the videos of her killing reached Facebook and YouTube, some prominent Afghans including government officials implicitly declared their support for the killing. When arrests were made in connection to this killing, a distinguished fiery Islamic cleric demanded the release of nine killers and warned the government of an uprising should it fail to comply.
At first, it appeared as if her killing would be just another incident of misogynistic violence and another occurrence of mob justice such as stoning which occasionally transpires in remote parts of Afghanistan. It wasn’t until the fog of confusion lifted and the truth emerged that Farkhunda had not burned the Quran; and that she was a devote Muslim herself and an aspiring religious student en route to become an Islamic scholar. That’s when those who initially had justified and supported her killing, started to back paddle and express regret for her death.
Demonstrators in Kabul protested police indifference and started calling for Justice for Farkhunda. The Afghan media collectively and in unison started beating the drumbeat that “Farkhunda was innocent because she had not burned a copy of holy Quran.” This narrative contained the tacit and widely-accepted message that burning Quran is a crime and punishable by death; and had Farkhunda in reality burned the book, then her killing would have been justified. The main theme in street protests was also that “Farkhunda was innocent”; which means, since she did not burn the Quran, she did not deserve to die.
The Kabulian’s violent reaction and killing of Farkhunda for what they considered to be “disrespectful” or an “insult to Islam” is not unique. We all have witnessed how a few cartoons of Mohammad could lead to pervasive mayhem in the Muslim World. Some of us are old enough to still remember Khomeini’s fatwa to kill Salman Rushdie for his book of fiction, The Satanic Verses; and let’s not forget the slaughter of Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam in 2004 by a Muslim who had found his movie depicting treatment of women in Islam offensive. Last month, a US-Bangladesh blogger named Avijit Roy was hacked to death in the capital city of Dhaka for his secular views. And then of course there’s the Paris massacre at offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 2015. All these killings and others not mentioned, were done in the name of reclaiming honor of Islam.
Back in Kabul, the outrage is not over why a human being was so savagely murdered; rather, the outrage is why a Muslim who had not burned a copy of Quran was killed. Had Farkhunda burned a copy of Quran, a majority of Afghans would have been silent and the body of Islamic clerics would have supported her killing.
Farkhunda’s assailants did not belong to ISIS or the Taliban or any other Muslim fundamentalists groups. They were average Kabulians who are the most modern and educated Afghans in Afghanistan. This fact singly eliminates Muslim apologists favorite blame card “The west” and “Colonialism” which they use to deflect any criticism of Islam in an attempt to point fingers to Western government policies in fueling Islamic extremism. The violent reaction to what is considered a desecration of the Quran can be expected in any Islamic country. This intolerance emanates from Mohammad, who according to Mohammad’s early biography and authentic hadiths (deeds and sayings of Mohammad), himself assassinated his critics. Unfortunately, as long as Mohammad is held as a moral compass by Muslims, mob justice, religious and “heavenly laws” will take precedence over civil or man-mad laws.
The silver lining in Farkhunda’s death is that Afghan women have been mobilized to stand up and break thousand year-old taboos and traditions. For the first time in Afghanistan, women became pallbearers and laid Farkhunda to rest. Ironically the same words of Allahu Akbar that were shouted by attackers during Farkhunda’s lynching, were also uttered during her funeral.
As Martin Luther King once said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.” Similarly, Afghanistan needs a law which makes lynching in the name of religion or any other reason illegal.
Unfortunately, the underlying mob justice mentality and killing in the name of honor of Islam still persists among most Afghans and Muslims. I hope that influential Afghan personalities or entities convey to the Afghan nation the message that freedom of expression, including desecration of the sacred must be tolerated. Only then we will know that the problem of mob mentality has effectively been addressed.
Arrests and prosecutions of Farkhunda’s killers will only address the misunderstanding and mistake of the attackers; it will not address the root cause, which is intolerance. If this issue is not addressed at the national level, another instance of mob justice will certainly occur should a Muslim apostate decide to burn a copy of Quran as a symbol of his/her emancipation from imposed mental slavery. Until we hear respect for freedom of expression emphasized, Farkhunda’s death will be considered a profound case of a mistaken honor killing; and Afghan’s outcry will reflect their outrage over misjudgment of the mob and unwarranted honor killing instead of an outcry over barbarity and intolerance.