Unanswered questions in Quran burning reports

Have you been following the reports out of Afghanistan after it was learned that Qurans and other holy books had been burned by troops? The story keeps developing. More people have been killed, including NATO troops, and President Obama sent a letter of apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The New York Times has been all over the story and I’ve generally found the reports useful. But there were two questions that were left unanswered in their stories. Here’s the top of yesterday’s report:

Armed with rocks, bricks, pistols and wooden sticks, protesters angry over the burning of Korans at the largest American base in Afghanistan this week took to the streets in demonstrations in a half-dozen provinces on Wednesday that left at least seven dead and many more injured.

The fury does not appear likely to abate soon. Members of Parliament called on Afghans to take up arms against the American military, and Western officials said they feared that conservative mullahs might incite more violence at the weekly Friday Prayer, when a large number of people worship at mosques.

“Americans are invaders, and jihad against Americans is an obligation,” said Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a member of Parliament from the Ghorband district in Parwan Province, where at least four demonstrators were killed in confrontations with the police on Wednesday.

Standing with about 20 other members of Parliament, Mr. Khawasi called on mullahs and religious leaders “to urge the people from the pulpit to wage jihad against Americans.”

What’s great about this type of reporting is that it shows how the murderous rage over the burning is part of a much larger story about the outside presence in Afghanistan and it shows how members of the government are actively trying to foment that outrage and what not.

But what I’ve found frustrating is the lack of details about the background. You would think that after however many years in Muslim countries, we’d have our policy toward Koran-burning down. So why in the world were these holy books being burned in the first place? There’s nothing in that story that explains it. A previous story explains that “A military official said detainees had been using the books to communicate with each other and potentially incite extremist activity.”

A CNN report fleshed that out a little more:

The Qurans were among religious materials removed from a detainee facility at Bagram Airfield. The materials were gathered for disposal and were inadvertently given to troops for burning, Gen. John Allen, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said Tuesday.

“This was not a decision that was made because they were religious materials,” he said. “It was not a decision that was made with respect to the faith of Islam. It was a mistake. It was an error. The moment we found out about it, we immediately stopped and we intervened.”

A military official said the materials were removed from the detainee center’s library because they had “extremist inscriptions” on them and there was “an appearance that these documents were being used to facilitate extremist communications.”

OK. So my first question is what we’re talking about other than Qurans. Then I’d like to know about Muslim pieties regarding each of these texts and whether they vary.

But the biggest question I have is how the military would dispose of Qurans corrupted by “extremist inscriptions” without offense. What is the approved method? Is there for destroying holy books that are facilitating extremist communications? Has anyone seen any reporting on that? Is there an approved method? Is there more than one approved method? Shouldn’t reporting on this topic include that information?

Actually, as I was just about to post on this, I see that CNN included part of what I’m asking about in its latest report! I love when that happens:

Afghan religious scholar Anayatullah Baligh said it can be appropriate to burn a damaged Quran to dispose of it, but that it should be done by a Muslim performing the act respectfully.

“I can’t tell you whether Americans intentionally burned the copies of the holy Quran to make Muslims angry or if they did it mistakenly,” he said, but said their “carelessness” was “a crime they have committed against the holiest book of 2 billion Muslims around the world.”

A military official told CNN on Thursday that it was unclear at this point how many Qurans were involved in the improper disposal and accepted that some had been partially burned.

American troops at the base would not have been able to read the texts and that would have contributed to the mistake, the official said, asking not to be named discussing an ongoing investigation.

I’m still curious for more details about proper disposal, but that’s helpful to include, don’t you think?

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  • Julia

    While reading this, I was thinking about appropriate flag-burning in the US and wondering how you respectfully dispose of Qurans. I’m not sure there is an approved method of disposing of Bibles, but there are strict rules about disposing of Torahs.

    The CNN report was much better about the context of what happened. They hit the issues that would naturally occur in many readers’ minds. Sounds like somebody further up the chain of command should have been consulted first.

  • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com Hausdorff

    Thank you for the post, it was an interesting and infuriating read.

    This makes me wonder what we are even doing over there. So much for winning hearts and minds, if we are going to be so careless (careless is the best possibility, malicious is more likely imo) as to burn their holy books why don’t we just come home?

  • Mike O.

    Here’s a recent Slate explainer article on how to properly dispose of a Quran.

  • http://hausdorffbb.blogspot.com Hausdorff

    Thanks for the link Mike O.

    Interesting read.

  • Jerry

    Mike O. I add my thanks for that link. It’s the kind of thing that news stories should either include or mention.

  • Ben

    Here’s another explainer from the CSM on the respectful way to dispose of Qurans. And here’s what the US military has told its members about handling the Quran.

  • Bill

    Is it permissible for prisoners to write in the Qurans? Is this desecration? Is it permissible if jihad is involved? What about destruction of Qurans by blowing oneself up in a mosque?

    The story is that Americans screwed up again. Americans apologize and Afghans rage. One should always walk softly around others’ religion, for it is holy ground and is apt to be heavily defended. But this should be a two-way street, and the Muslim world appears to have zero respect for the sacred texts of other religions. War is a tough trade, but occupation under these circumstances is an impossible task.

  • Bain Wellington

    “carelessness” as a “crime”

    That’s something to think about.

  • Bain Wellington

    Apologies for my previous lame comment and for the following sententious one.

    “Carelessness” can certainly be a crime: for example, an act of carelessness in carrying out any potentially dangerous activity (whether lawful or not) or in handling a dangerous object, or a lapse with regard to a vulnerable person entrusted to one’s care. But carelessness with regard to an object not itself inherently or potentially dangerous is not generally considered criminal behaviour in what we are pleased to call “western society”, framed as it is by principles of Roman and Mosaic law, as well as of Canon and common law.

    This is part of why “westerners” find it hard to overcome a sense of utter incomprehension and revulsion when confronted by violent responses to careless – even if inescusable – behaviour with regard to objects, even sacred ones, even in far-off places. Such responses are viewed as themselves criminal according to our notions of what is just.

    When it comes to reporting on such responses (and the responses are the story) don’t more details still leave the averagely educated reader floundering to make sense of it all? What, if anything did the furious reaction to the Jyllens-Posten cartoon in 2005 teach us (still rumbling on)? That mutual incomprehension between the “west” and Islam is unbridgeable?

  • evildave

    I’m left scratching my head about other things, in this, and other stories.

    For one, how did the Afghans find out about burning Korans, among tons of OTHER trash, on a SECURE military base, and there are even pictures of them showing off partially burned books… how the heck did they get those? Once soldiers have started burning trash, they won’t generally let you ‘save’ things out of the burn pile. Some of it might be classified materials.

    Or did they take these things OFF BASE to burn them?

    Did the soldiers wave them at people, and taunt them, then leave the burn, unfinished? A box of burning trash is just burning trash, unless someone IDENTIFIES what the trash IS. Do they let Afghan civilians inspect their burning trash up-close?

    Did allah magically reveal what was happening? Or were they tipped off by more mundane means?

  • Bain Wellington

    To answer evildave’s question, according to Reuters, charred copies were found by labourers collecting refuse at the base. It doesn’t say they were scavengers, but Bagram is a massive, heavily-fortified base so the presumption must be that they were employees.

    See also a CNN report from 2009 (Military burns unsolicited Bibles sent to Afghanistan) – just for context about the military’s attitude to the disposal of combustible material that has security implications.

  • evildave

    Ahh, thanks! That explains how it was discovered, nicely. Because why should we be raking the ashes on our own burn piles with sensitive/classified material ourselves, when there are so many cheap laborers who hate us available to do it?

  • evildave

    I have some more questions, however.

    1. Is it true that a holy book must be reverently and appropriately disposed of?

    2. Is it true that a holy book is typically made of wood pulp paper and ink?

    3. Would it make a difference if it was made of rice paper and ink?

    4. Would it make a difference if it was carved into pieces of wood?

    5. Would it make a difference if it was embossed onto metal sheets?

    6. Would it make a difference if it was etched into glass?

    7. Would it make a difference if it was printed with individual xenon atoms with a scanning, tunneling microscope?

    8. Would it make a difference if it was printed in self-sustaining quantum or magnetic or charged state?

    9. Is it true that it’s not what the book is made of, it’s the contents of the book?

    10. Would it make a difference if it was translated to a different language?

    11. Would it make a difference if it used different character sets?

    12. Would it make a difference if it was written with smaller character sets, with longer words?

    13. Would it make a difference if people who read it only had ten characters in their alphabet?

    14. Would it make a difference if people who read it only had two characters in their alphabet?

    Seems to me that computers, computer network, and display devices are creating and destroying holy books untold millions of times a day.

    If you don’t like it, don’t put your holy books up on the internet, or quote them on the internet, or use them in any kind of electronic devices.

  • Bain Wellington

    This AP report by Sarah el Deeb, dated 25 Feb. answers most of Mollie’s questions, and some of yours, evildave.

    What is interesting for me is the treatment of this incident by Reuters which regularly mentions “desecration” [of copies of the the Koran], whereas most “western” news outlets go with “burning”. See, for example, reports on 23 Feb (after the first break); 24 Feb (in the lede); 25 Feb (in the second cross-heading); 26 Feb (half-way through the piece); and 27 Feb (para. 2, after the lede).


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