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A nuanced response in Parliament

Danish cartoons sparked violent protests in some streets of Afghanistan, but not in others. Why?

All politics is local. The American politician Tip O'Neill said this, but it was proved true in Afghanistan this weekend, as protests turned violent over the cartoons of Muhammad printed in Denmark and other European countries.

Marching from the northern Afghanistan city of Charikar to the American military base at Bagram, thousands of protesters shouted, "Death to America, Death to Denmark, Death to foreigners, Death to the West," and burned shops, cars, and police checkpoints along the way.

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Death to America? For cartoons that were not published by any major US newspapers, such protests might seem illogical. But they show the way Afghans equate the government of Hamid Karzai with America, and how frustrations with Mr. Karzai can quickly jump to frustrations with the West in general, and back again.

These protests may sputter out, as did the violence last year over reports that US military interrogators in Guantánamo had desecrated the Koran. But, while the grievance is less direct this time, the morale of Afghans has worsened in recent months, providing more dry timber for the latest spark over Islamic sensibilities.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the protests that rocked Afghanistan was where they were held. Down south, where American and coalition troops have been fighting against Taliban and other antigovernment forces in increasingly bloody battles, the cities were largely quiet. But up north, considered safer, the ranks of protesters grew into the thousands.

Religion alone does not explain the sudden ferocity of recent clashes that have left at least seven Afghans dead. If it did, there would have been more protests down south. Instead, the protests emanated from an area where former mujahideen (Islamic warrior) parties are at their strongest, the very parties that were once considered moderate Islamists and have now become a major political opposition movement to the Karzai government.

Yet the democratic changes here also channeled some of the discontent in more constructive directions.

Karzai, who had strongly condemned the cartoons last week, appealed to Muslims Sunday to practice forgiveness after protests in the Middle East turned violent.

On Saturday, I was in attendance as Afghanistan's fledgling Parliament debated for about 20 minutes how exactly to protest the now four-month-old Danish cartoons.

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Few in Parliament had even seen the cartoons until Afghan journalists in the gallery passed around photocopies of the images, downloaded from the Internet. As the drawings made the rounds, it was clear that nearly everyone in the assembly found them offensive.

At the end of a vigorous - yet civil - debate, during which everyone agreed the cartoons were deplorable, parliamentarians waved their green cards to call for a resolution to condemn the Danish government for allowing the cartoons to be printed. One lone parliamentarian waved a red card of dissent. "We should not condemn only Denmark, but also Norway and France and other European countries that have reprinted the cartoons." The house muttered their agreement.

One member, a Dari speaker from western Herat Province, stood to take a minority view. "The government of Afghanistan should call for the death of the man who drew these cartoons," he shouted. A flurry of murmurs indicated that most Afghan parliamentarians considered this a bit over the top.

Nuances were also considered. One delegate asked whether it was really fair to target whole nations, or merely the newspapers behind the affair. The notion didn't take, however.


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