Certainly, Afghanistan is different than almost all other Islamic countries. First, it has the lowest literacy rate among Muslim nations, thanks in large part to the four decades of constant war. Three out of four Afghans aged 15 and over cannot read or write. If they cannot read the Quran, they definitely do not understand it. Therefore, the majority of the population receives its basic Islamic knowledge from the tribal elders, the local Imams, and other religious leaders in the community. These individuals have strong political incentives to take advantage of incidents such as these protests. They mobilize people, appeal to their anger and emotions in order to promote their political agendas. On the other hand, Muslims in Iran or Saudi Arabia are well educated. They do not take their religious leaders’ call for protest for granted. Almost 80 percent of Iranians are literate. They can read and understand the Quran. That is a major difference in literacy rate between neighboring Iran and Afghanistan, and it makes a huge difference in peoples’ approach to problems like the Quran burning.
Second, the unemployment rate in Afghanistan has been fluctuating between 30 and 40 percent since 2001, unlike any other Muslim country. That means almost 7 to 8 million people are unemployed in the country. A man from Parwan province was quoted in the 2010 Oxfam survey saying, “If the people are jobless, they are capable of doing anything.” Many of these young unemployed men are frustrated. They develop a sense of negative attitude towards the central government. Those who can afford to do so leave the country, and others get involved in widespread antisocial and criminal behaviors like the Quran-burning protests. The bottom line is that while other young Muslims around the world are employed, and enjoy a good life, the Afghan youth are struggling with unemployment and uncertainty that fuels anger, and violent activities.
Third, according to some estimates, almost 36 percent of the Afghan population is living under the poverty line. It is an unprecedented figure compared to any other Muslim country. In other words, one out of every three Afghans has a total income of less than $1 a day. They can at best barely meet their minimal needs for survival. Remember Afghanistan has had the harshest winter this year, and reportedly 40 people, most of them children, have frozen to death. These are the people living under the poverty line, in tents. Their children do not have warm clothes, and they walk around in the snow with bare feet, or torn-apart sandals. People are sick and tired of living a subsistence life. They are frustrated and annoyed by the fact that so much foreign aid money has been poured into country and their lives haven’t changed a bit, in some cases have gotten worse. These people are easily motivated by those who have political agendas to join violent protests.
In sum, it is not only Afghans' responsibility to defend the Quran; however, the current social and economic problems have created the platform for Afghans to engage in such violent activities. Other Muslim nations are not amenable to such threats; therefore, we haven’t seen the Quran burning related incidents elsewhere.
Abid Amiri currently works for the American Councils for International Education as Program Associate for Higher Education, and has also worked in their Kabul office as a Program Manager. He earned his B.A. in economics and global studies from St. Lawrence University, and concentrates on the North America, the Middle East, and open market economics in Afghanistan. His most recent work on unemployment in Afghanistan was published in the first issue of the Glocal Journal. Abid speaks fluent Pashto, Dari, English, and Urdu. Follow Abid on Twitter @abidamiri