I first heard the news from a cab driver.
As soon as I sat in the car, Jawed, the driver, asked me: “Have you see anything on the Facebooks?”
What he said next, though, sounded like nothing I ever expected to hear.
“A woman was burned and thrown into the river after burning a Qur’an.”
At first I thought I heard wrong. But the conversation continued. Then I thought this must be a wild, unsubstantiated rumour.
It wasn’t. He had seen the rows and rows of people and cars himself .
“The entire street was backed up. All I could see was the crowds.”
His description painted a vivid picture.
I hope all those Kabul elites, who are/were blindly supporting/appreciating security forces, especially policemen… http://t.co/uM0kbrjHdL
— Haris Kakar (@RSkakar) March 20, 2015
I couldn’t understand why. Why would anyone want to stand back and watch such a thing?
As Jawed drove me home our conversation carried on.
He kept returning to one point. She disrespected the word of God — a book “sent down from the heavens.”
A fact I could never disagree with.
Still, I failed to see how “one sin [murder] would erase another [blasphemy].”
I asked who the woman was – “was she Afghan?”
This was not the first report of a Qur’an burning in the country. Past reports accused Pakistanis of paying people in the East and the South to do so.
Did the woman have any psychological issues, I asked.
“If she did, then the killers would be the sinners,” I said.
But he had no answers.
Jawed kept returning to the fact that she disgraced the holy book of Islam.
I posed a moral question using an act I knew almost no Afghan could ever rightfully defend.
Suicide bombers, I said, claim they are defending Afghanistan from ‘unbelievers.’
“They think they need to protect Afghanistan from people like you and I.”
“So what’s the difference between suicide bombers taking what belongs to God — judgment — in their own hands and what the people at the river did,” I asked.
He had no answer.
Later that evening, I went to the Kabul River. A sense of disbelief seemed to envelope the the entire area. Store owners and vendors talked of the crowds. One even claimed as many as “40,000″ had gathered at the scene. Unlike Jawed, though, none seemed to speak in praise of them. Instead, there was a sense of shock coursing through each of their words.
They seemed to struggle to describe actions of thousands of otherwise ordinary people. The likes of which they encountered every day.
The act occurred at a highly-trafficked architectural and religious landmark of the Afghan capital.
The mosque and shrine lie at the base of a crowded marketplace.
It’s an area every resident of Kabul has passed dozens, if not hundreds of times, a year.
Any of us could have been there at that moment.
The most unsettling part, though, no one can say with certainty how they would act in that situation.
I think it was that realisation that quelled my anger at Jawed’s argument.
Only a few kilometres or a few minutes kept me from facing the reality of what I would have done under those circumstances.
I wasn’t even shocked.
Instead, I found myself thinking: “Now I know why he and others like him think the way they do.” I couldn’t imagine what they did, but somehow I was able to understand it.
We continued to carry on a passionate but mannered conversation. We each made our points and listened to one another.
I found myself caught by the levels of tolerance, or lack thereof, exhibited in both instances. There was none for the woman, but for a man arguing that murder was not the answer shortly after the act, there was.
For several hours I struggled to parse the emotions. I didn’t know what to think or how to feel.
But now, I’m left with only a single emotion — sadness.
Sadness for the woman. Sadness for her family. Sadness for an angry mob, many of whom stood back and watched. Sadness for the police, who seemed to do nothing to stop the brutal murder of a young woman.
In each person’s experience of that moment — the mob, woman and police — there is some level of tragedy.