Kabul: A newspaper columnist condemning Islamic State (Isis) and the Taliban triggered demonstrations in several Afghan cities on Friday, with protesters denouncing the article as blasphemous and calling on the government to punish the publication.
In Kabul, a crowd of approximately 500 people, including clerics and several members of parliament, gathered in front of the Eid Gah Mosque, the city’s second largest house of worship.
“The government must stop the people who insulted the prophet, the Qur’an and Islam, and prevent them from leaving the country,” said Fazl Hadi Wazin, an Islamic scholar at Salam University who spoke from the outdoor podium.
In an opinion piece published last week in the English-language daily the Afghanistan Express, a journalist named AJ Ahwar admonished Muslims for remaining silent in the face of Isis and the Taliban.
He also criticised Islam for not accepting other religions and minorities such as homosexuals and Hazaras, a Shia minority in Afghanistan.
The article ended by concluding that human beings are more important than God, which seemed to particularly incense protesters.
“The newspaper said God can’t control people and that God is unwise,” said Mangal Bader, 38, one of the protesters. He joined others in calling for the newspaper staff to suffer the same fate as five men who were recently convicted of rape and hanged, after great public furore.
“They need to be executed so humans know that you cannot insult the religion of Allah,” said Ahmad, 22, another protester.
In pauses between speakers, protesters chanted “death to America”. According to one demonstrator, the US instils ideas of freedom of expression in the minds of Afghan journalists, then grants them asylum once they anger their compatriots.
“The international community pretend to be heroes of freedom of expression,” said Wazin after his speech. “They have to come out and say they are not behind this. If they don’t, these protests will grow.”
In a public apology issued days after the controversial article, the Afghanistan Express explained that the op-ed was published due to a “technical mistake”. The apology, however, has done little to quell the anger.
“I think the newspaper and the editors crossed all boundaries. Even our non-Muslim brothers don’t speak like this,” said Wazin. “This kind of writing is destabilising to the country.”
The protests come after a public uproar over a brutal rape in a suburb of Kabul prompted then-president Hamid Karzai to publicly call for the alleged perpetrators to be executed. Five men were subsequently sentenced to death in a brisk trial, widely criticised by international observers for being botched.
Protesters may hope for the same kind of interference from the newly elected president, Ashraf Ghani. However, during his campaign Ghani spoke out against what he saw as his predecessor’s attempts to curtail freedom of the press.
As one of his first acts in office, Ghani invited New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg back in the country, after Karzai had expelled the reporter over contentious articles.
Afghan media reported earlier this week that a council of ministers had instructed the ministry of interior to arrest the staff of the newspaper, but a ministry spokesperson denied receiving such an order.