I had been dreading the call. It came just before 7 a.m., rousing me from a deep sleep. But my translator wasted no time getting my attention. There had been a massive blast in the center of Kabul, he said. Half a dozen bodies had been pulled from the rubble. More were expected. I had arrived in Kabul just two days earlier to report for The Washington Post, and I had immediately sensed something unsettling in the air. It was spring, after all, the traditional start of the fighting season in Afghanistan, and everyone was bracing themselves for the war to come to Kabul.
As I arrived at the scene of the explosion, I felt certain it just had. A six-foot-deep crater marked the blast site, and all around was debris from a row of now-obliterated mud-brick shop stalls: rugs, nylon rope, laundry baskets, a dead dog. As rescue crews frantically dug for survivors, an old man silently wept. "This is the work of the enemies of Afghanistan," a shopkeeper spat as he gazed at the wreckage of his stall.
There was no question about it, others agreed. It was the Taliban—that band of religious zealots who had imposed their rigid will on the country for fiveyears and had now been terrorizing it through guerrilla attacks for nearly as long. The assumption was a reasonable one to make; insurgents spouting their twisted vision of Islam had killed or wounded more than 1,000 Afghan civilians in 2006. But it was wrong.
The blast had not been an attack at all. It had been an accident. A spark in a gunpowder shop had set off a chain reaction, with disastrous consequences. In a place like Afghanistan, we’re accustomed to seeing violence through the lens of militant Islam. That, after all, has been the story—a war fought along religious lines, with insurgents fired by their desire to wage jihad against infidel occupiers. But it’s not the only story, and it’s easy to miss the others if religious motivations are instantly ascribed every time something goes up in smoke. Occasionally, accidents happen. More often, religion masquerades as the motivation, obscuring other factors that matter far more.
I first observed this phenomenon in early 2006 when Afghans began to pour into the streets in protest over several cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that had been published in a Danish newspaper months earlier. The cartoons were perceived, correctly, as being offensive to Islam. Demonstrations erupted around the world. But in Afghanistan, at least, they took on a strange character. Day after day, a pattern emerged. Thousands of people would demonstrate peacefully, chanting slogans as they marched. But near the end, a small group would begin to throw rocks. Then they would fire guns. Every now and then, they dropped a grenade or two. The police invariably met violence with violence, and the body count started to rise. The bloody nature of the protests was surprising to me, because the organizers I talked with said they had never intended their protests to be violent. All they wanted was to convey their deep sense of hurt at a grievous insult to their religion.
I dug deeper and soon found that those inciting the violence had other objectives in mind. The reason, it turned out, had little to do with religion. Instead, it was all about power. The protests had become a convenient way for some to flaunt their influence and for others to undermine the authority of their rivals. In one case, for instance, a local strongman wanted to get even with the police chief, so he instructed his followers to use the protests over the cartoons as a cover for sowing chaos that would embarrass the chief.
It may well have had the desired effect locally. But to the outside world, it fell into a very different, though familiar story line: Islamic fundamentalists killing in the name of religion. Just as the protests over the cartoons were windingdown, violence flared again. Again the spark appeared to be religion. Again I found that explanation misleading. This time, there had been a riot in the western city of Herat. By Afghan standards, Herat is peaceful. So it was unexpected when reports emerged that a mob of Sunni men had attacked groups of Shi’ite worshippers during their observation of the holiday Ashura.
When I flew into Herat days later, I found evidence of a massacre. I visited a Shi’ite mosque that had been nearly burned to the ground, with four people killed and more than 100 injured in the ensuing clash. Survivors expressed shock; there had long been amicable relations between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Herat, and they did not understand why that had suddenly changed. Neither did I, until I began reporting on what had really happened. The former governor, it seemed, wanted to show that he was the only one capable of maintaining peace and stability in Herat. So he orchestrated a sectarian riot, just to remind residents how much they missed him. The move was purely political and had very little to do with Islam. "This is not the work of Sunnis or Shi’ahs," 35-year-old car dealer Ghulam Hussain told me as he surveyed the damaged mosque. "This is the work of people who have lost power and want to get it back."
It was a cynical, opportunistic ploy, to be sure, but one that played well into preconceived notions in the West of why conflict occurs in the Muslim world. And yet it’s rare when religion alone offers an adequate explanation for conflict. Even the Taliban—who for many epitomize a radical Islamic movement with violence at its core—cannot be properly understood without a strong grasp of its nonreligious features. It has, for instance, an important ethnic dimension, representing as it does a vision of Pashtun supremacy in Afghanistan. It also has geostrategic elements; it has received critical support from allies in Pakistan who favor the movement less for its religious orthodoxy than for its potential as a bulwark against India.
When the dateline reads Afghanistan or Pakistan—two countries I cover for the Post—we’ve almost come to expect conflict and religion to go hand in hand, to the point where it’s surprising when one is present without the other. I spent much of March covering rallies in Pakistan by lawyers who were furious at President Pervez Musharraf’s decision to suspend the nation’s chief justice. The lawyers were passionate in their objections, calling for an end to Musharraf’s reign; the police were forceful in trying to quiet dissent, resorting to tear gas and baton charges. The result was a dramatic story. And yet, based on the comments I received from readers, the most unexpected element for many was the one not present: The protesters were clad in black suits, not wearing turbans, and they were shouting about the rule of law, not about Allah. That such a conflict could occur in a place like Pakistan caught many people off guard. But should it have been a shock that there’s more to the Islamic world than Islam?
The point is not that religion doesn’t matter. It certainly does. The point is that other factors matter, as well. As journalists, we owe it to the public to present a multidimensional portrait of the conflicts at the heart of our coverage.
Griff Witte is the Islamabad/Kabul bureau chief for The Washington Post.