Kim Sengupta: Insulting Islam can have lethal repercussions on battlefield

Identifying Western troops with the desecration of the most holy of writings would help insurgents to win support

It may seem strange that General David Petraeus should take time off from running the war in Afghanistan – currently the West's most crucial foreign policy challenge – to get involved in a row over an obscure American church carrying out an anti-Muslim stunt. But in a volatile and unstable Afghanistan, the burning of Korans may well have lethal and severely damaging repercussions at a particularly sensitive time in both the military and political landscape of the country.

General Petraeus's warning that the stunt is likely to put the lives of American troops in danger is not far-fetched. Five years ago 15 people were killed and dozens injured in riots in Afghanistan after Newsweek magazine claimed that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had flushed copies of the Koran down a lavatory to intimidate detainees. Two years later there were more deaths during weeks of protest against cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed published by a Danish newspaper.

Afghanistan was not the only place to experience violent reactions to these perceived insults against Islam. But it is a country where insurgents are waging a jihad against infidel forces. Identifying American, and, in effect, other Western troops with the desecration of the most holy of writings would undoubtedly help them to win support within the population and recruit more fighters for the cause.

Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative country where those deemed to be offending the tenets of Islam face draconian retribution. Apostasy is punishable by death, those suspected of proselytising other religions have been murdered. Even attempts to debate social reform can be highly dangerous as Pervez Kambaksh, a student, found out when he downloaded an article on women's rights from the internet. A religious court sentenced him to death after a four-minute trial, his life only saved after a long international campaign. And President Hamid Karzai – as support from his American and European sponsors weakens – seeks to come to an accommodation with the fundamentalists.

It is against this background that news of burning Korans will be received by the Afghans. There is even a possibility that the fact such a thing was ever even considered could incite violence, with the internet, one of the manifestations of the modern world that reactionary Islam seeks to keep at bay, playing a key role.