The reports in the media that Americans at Guantanamo facility allegedly desecrated the Qur’an to torture prisoners has unleashed an intense wave of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, which has already caused 16 deaths. This is worse than Abu Ghraib; Abu Ghraib represents the physical and psychological torture of a few Muslims, Qur’an desecration represents a spiritual, emotional and psychological torture of all Muslims. Even if it turns out that the Newsweek report was false, most people will see it as a cover up and another American attempt to eschew accountability.
For Muslims the Qur’an is the literal word of God, it is the living and eternal miracle of Prophet Muhammad, it is their direct link to the divine, it is the source of their faith, their values, their identity and it is without doubt the most important symbol of their religion. Americans, who have a rather cavalier attitude towards things religious, may not understand this, but for Muslims things that are sacred are indeed sacred.
The US government has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to improve US image in the Islamic World, commissioning initiatives that include radio programs, Satellite TV, youth magazines and civil society empowerment programs. But all the gains from these expensive initiatives are dramatically undermined by a periodic display of civilizational insensitivity that reeks of acute disregard for Muslim sentiments.
The use of the word “Crusades” by President Bush to describe his war on terror, the continuous revelations about the torture and abuse of Muslim prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Iraq and Guantanamo, Cuba, the reluctance to punish General Boykin for his Islamophobic bigotry are examples of how periodically the US government seeks to remind Muslims of its callous attitudes towards their rights and their religion.
The thing that hurts the most is that while there is verbal recognition of these problems, there is no accountability. In a testimony to the Senate and House Armed Services Committee on May 7, 2004, Secretary Rumsfeld said that he took “full responsibility” for what happened in Abu Ghraib. One would have thought that a resignation letter would follow. Nothing happened. It is still a mystery as to what Secretary Rumsfeld meant by “full responsibility”. I have since met several leaders from the Muslim world and media persons who have remarked that Rumsfeld’s words are just indicative of how empty and meaningless are the current administrations respect for religion, law and human rights.
To many Muslims the Qur’an desecration episode, regardless of Newsweek’s retraction which lacks much credibility in the Muslim world, is another deeply aggravating example of how the US has made Islam and Muslim religiosity a target in its so called war on terror. It is now being revealed that several prisoners, both in Iraq and in Guantanamo, have made allegations of Qur’an desecration. To many Muslims, the allegations of Qur’an desecration is consistent with their image of the US as an anti-Islam force. It will take more than a retraction and another empty “Pentagon enquiry” to ameliorate the anger, the hatred and the disgust towards the US that is now felt widely in the Muslim world.
It is amazing that the editors at the Newsweek magazine expressed surprise at the reactions from the Muslim world. Their ignorance about the religiosity of a people they report on frequently is amazing. Don’t they have Muslims on their staff that they could consult? The level of ignorance extant combined with unwillingness to develop deeper understanding of Muslim cultures and Islam by many US officials and those in the media who cover the Muslim world is reaching criminal proportions. The ramifications of mistakes such as this one, even if it is proven that ultimately the report was a false one, will take a long time to rectify. Perhaps Newsweek should dedicate a special issue to celebrate the Qur’an and the deep devotion that Muslims hold for it. Their reckless reporting has already caused 16 deaths and may cause more in the future.
This is a very serious issue and it is important that American leadership, the media and the civil society react with sensitivity. Secretary Condileeza Rice has set the right tone when she expressed that “disrespect for the Holy Qur’an is something that the United States will never tolerate.” Condemnations for Qur’an desecration and expressions of respect for Islam and Muslims must come from all sections of the society. Perhaps it is time for President Bush to step up to the plate and acknowledge that he has been soft on Islamophobes in his military. His refusal to take stern and firm actions against innumerable violations by the Pentagon has in a way encouraged a culture of insensitivity and even malice towards Islam and Muslims in some sections of the Defense Department. To blame Newsweek alone will not remedy the damage done to US-Muslim relations and to US image in the rest of the world.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy and author of American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom. This article and more of Khan’s writings can be seen on his website, glocaleye.org.