Sorry, it was a mistake, an inadvertent one — due to ignorance, not malice, really. We apologize, profusely. It won’t happen again, ever. We will punish the people responsible for it, promise.
That’s been the line from Barack Obama, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and the American commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan General John Allen to calm the furor caused by the burning of the Qur’an near an American military base north of Kabul.
The crime is not the burning per se. The first burning of the holy book was done officially during the seventh century reign of Islam’s third caliph Uthman.
According to Muslim tradition, the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (570-632) by Archangel Gabriel over two decades. Not being literate, he dictated the received words to scribes who wrote it on bark, bones, stones, hides and date palm leaves. His successors saw the need to compile one correct version. That done, Uthman ordered the parchments burnt.
Supervised burning remains a prescribed way of disposing of old copies or print-runs with typos, the others being burying or, lately, shredding and recycling.
So, why the outcry again over Qur’an burning? For several reasons.
To Muslims, the Qur’an, the words of God, and the Messenger who conveyed them are not abstract matters.
Such is their devotion to the holy book that they are rarely far from it, physically or in spirit. They give it pride of place in homes. Most kiss it before and after every reading. They instinctively reach for it on both happy and sad occasions, for blessings or comfort. Many commit all its 86,430 Arabic words to memory — a feat with no parallel in other religions or in the secular realm.
As for the love of Muhammad, it “runs like blood in the veins of his community,” in the famous verse of the great Indian philosopher/poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938).
To desecrate the Scripture or to insult the Prophet is to scar the soul of a Muslim. This is especially so when done by non-Muslims whose motives are suspect and who may, in fact, be acting out of malice, like the Florida pastor who burnt a copy of the Qur’an last year.
In 2008, George W. Bush apologized after a U.S. serviceman in Iraq shot a Qur’an in target practice. In 2005, a military investigation confirmed four cases of the desecration of the Qur’an at Guantanamo Bay, as a tool of punishment against prisoners.
This is what seems to have transpired in Afghanistan as well. The Qur’ans came from a detention facility, where the detainees were deemed to have been using the books to send secret messages. Even if they were, why couldn’t the books have been removed rather than consigned to trash?
Gen. Allen has ordered every NATO soldier to immediately undergo a sensitivity session in “the proper handling of religious materials.” Shocking, isn’t it, that after a decade in Afghanistan, foreigners still don’t have a clue about what is or is not acceptable to the locals and, more pragmatically, what might backfire on the mission?
Cultural illiteracy continues to hobble Americans. Their nighttime raids violate one of the most dearly-held Afghan traditions, that of the privacy of their homes, especially women. Equally offensive is to have dogs sniff at their possessions, especially food and clothing.
There has also been the desecration of the dead, in violation of the Geneva Conventions. In 2010, some Americans posed with corpses of Afghan civilians gunned down by rogue soldiers. This year, a video emerged of Marines in combat gear urinating on three Afghan corpses.
Afghans also know that some of the scandalous tactics of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were used in Afghan detention camps.
There’s the desecration of Islam as part of the cultural warfare on Muslims in the post-9/11 period.
The 2006 Danish cartoons were designed to defame Muhammad, as per the self-admission of their creators.
That same year, Pope Benedict made demonstrably false assertions about the Qur’an and Muhammad, statements he later apologized for, in language not all that different from what we’ve heard in the last few days. His Holiness was sorry, he had not meant to utter those unholy words, had not meant to offend anyone, etc.
It is not an accident that the biggest and most violent protests against perceived anti-Islamic insults occur in Afghanistan. Afghans see themselves under foreign occupation, a sentiment duly exploited by the Taliban. This would not have been the case if the NATO mission had ended when it should have, about 10 years ago, or at least not been botched as badly as it has been.
February 25, 2012, The Star