The Afghan Firebrand Capitalizing on the Koran Burning

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Musadeq Sadeq / AP

Afghans burn an effigy of Terry Jones during a demonstration in Kabul on Sept. 6, 2010. Hundreds of Afghans railed against the U.S. and called for President Obama's death at the rally, held to denounce Jones' plan to burn the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11

The threat from an obscure Florida pastor to burn the Koran on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is the latest controversy to draw angry Afghans into the streets. On Monday a crowd of about 500 Afghans chanted "Death to America," waving signs wishing the same for President Obama. They also burned a cardboard effigy of Pastor Terry Jones, head of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., who has not backed down from his pledge to burn the Muslim holy book.

Yet Jones is not the only one gaining notoriety from the controversy. The man who orchestrated the anti-America rally in the Afghan capital is a young Muslim cleric who is running for a seat in parliament: Maulawi Habibullah Hassam. Competing in a packed field of 600-plus candidates, Hassam is hoping that his hostile posture toward infidels in general, and the U.S. in particular, will raise his profile high enough to propel him into office. "Those were all my supporters, and they were just a few from Kabul," boasts Hassam, referring to the demonstrators. "If I want them to, people from all over Afghanistan will step forward for more protests against America."

Maulawi Habibullah Hassam
The man who orchestrated the anti-American rally in the Afghan capital is a young Muslim cleric currently running for a seat in parliament: Maulawi Habibullah Hassam
Jason Motlagh for TIME
Hassam, 35, may have a politician's flair for bluster and hyperbole, but his influence is not to be dismissed. Originally from the northern province of Panjshir, he and his family left for Pakistan during the anti-Soviet jihad; there he was educated in the madrasahs around Peshawar. He returned to Afghanistan following the Taliban's ouster in late 2001 with plans to open a hard-line Islamic school. With private donations and savings from a small carpet-selling business, the school was eventually built in a low-income neighborhood in the shadow of the InterContinental Hotel, a Kabul landmark. In 2005, Hassam was elected to the provincial council, spending a year as chairman before a brief incarceration on charges of injuring police officers — charges he says were made up by rivals and that were quickly dropped. Since then, he has upgraded his madrasah to accommodate about 250 boys and girls, while continuing to lead Friday prayers in an adjacent mosque that, he claims, regularly swells with up to 2,000 worshippers, thanks to its close proximity to a large university. The pulpit, Hassam says, equals power. Asked what his odds of getting elected are on Sept. 18, he deadpans: "One hundred percent."

Interviewed in the madrasah's well-stocked library, Hassam is soft-spoken in the presence of a Western journalist, occasionally flashing a mischievous smile. He insists that only a small fraction of Afghans with lucrative connections back the corrupt administration of President Hamid Karzai; still fewer the heavy-handed presence of U.S.-led foreign troops, which, he says, have killed scores of Afghans while making no effort to understand the country's unique culture or faith. In his view, the antipathy stretches back to U.S. shores. Obama and the American public have shown their true selves, he contends, because no one has forcibly intervened to stop the planned burning of the Koran, a book that Muslims believe contains the absolute word of God. "This ignorance is why the U.S. is losing in Afghanistan," he says, and has created a frustrated majority that he wants to unify behind an Islamic system of enforced justice — though stopping short, he says, of the Taliban's harsh methods. A couple of male teenage students seated nearby nod in assent.

Hassam's critics counter that he's just playing politics. According to Sanjar Sohail, publisher of one of Afghanistan's largest dailies, the black-bearded cleric is "exploring the [Koran controversy] for political gain, and he's done this kind of thing for years." He says Hassam has flaunted alleged abuses against him during his time in prison to gain sympathy and malign opponents. At the same time, Sohail acknowledges that desecration of the Koran would offend both moderate and radical Muslims, making it a handy propaganda tool sure to be exploited by rabble-rousers in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Indeed, the prospect of violence from Jakarta to Jalalabad has shaken U.S.-based religious groups of all stripes, as well as civilian and military leaders. General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, took the unusual step on Tuesday of publicly expressing worries that the small Florida church's stunt could endanger U.S. troops overseas.

Hassam offers a vague response to the question of a possible violent backlash. He notes that when some children involved in the initial Kabul protest started throwing stones at a passing U.S. convoy, they were ordered to stop and obeyed, and the event ended peacefully. Nevertheless, with Jones' insistence that a bonfire will be lit this weekend, Hassam refuses to rule out more anti-America protests and stresses his right under Islamic law to issue a fatwa, or ruling, ordering up additional actions. "If the Koran burns in the U.S., Muslims will react wherever [Americans] are," he warns. "They will face real trouble."

Pressed to describe what those actions might be, the cleric will not be specific. But on a table near the library door, a stack of campaign cards sits for visitors to take on their way out. Hassam's political agenda is listed in bold font. "Strengthen Islam against Western hegemony," reads one. "Liberation from filthy conspiracies (Infidels and Colonialism)," reads another. It is not hard to read between the lines.