Monday, May 16, 2005

Anti-American Riots and the Koran Desecration Question

You are probably aware that several Muslim countries have anti-American riots right now. The immediate cause is supposedly a small story that appeared in Newsweek about the Koran being flushed down the toilet in Guantanamo Bay. Desecrating the Koran is a crime punishable by death in some Muslim countries, and the possibility that something of the sort took place in a prison run by Americans is a very good match to use to light the big jihad fire.

But now we learn that Newsweek got it wrong, that perhaps there was no such desecration in the first place:

Newsweek magazine on Sunday said it erred in a May 9 report that said U.S. interrogators desecrated the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, and apologized to the victims of deadly Muslim protests sparked by the article.

"We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst," Editor Mark Whitaker wrote in the magazine's latest issue, due to appear on U.S. newsstands on Monday.

Whitaker said the magazine inaccurately reported that U.S. military investigators had confirmed that personnel at the detention facility in Cuba had flushed the Koran down the toilet.

The report sparked angry and violent protests across the Muslim world from Afghanistan, where 16 were killed and more than 100 injured, to Pakistan to Indonesia to Gaza. In the past week it was condemned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and by the Arab League. On Sunday, Afghan Muslim clerics threatened to call for a holy war against the United States.

The weekly news magazine said in its May 23 edition that the information had come from a "knowledgeable government source" who told Newsweek that a military report on abuse at Guantanamo Bay said interrogators flushed at least one copy of the Koran down a toilet in a bid to make detainees talk.

But Newsweek said the source later told the magazine he could not be certain he had seen an account of the Koran incident in the military report and that it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts.

The acknowledgment by the magazine came amid a continuing heightened scrutiny of the U.S. media, which has seen a rash of news organizations fire reporters and admit that stories were fabricated or plagiarized.

The Pentagon told the magazine the report was wrong last Friday, saying it had investigated earlier allegations of Koran desecration from detainees and found them "not credible."

The May 9 report, which appeared as a brief item by Michael Isikoff and John Barry in the magazine's "Periscope" section, had a huge international impact, sparking the protests from Muslims who consider the Koran the literal word of God and treat each book with deep reverence.

Desecration of the Koran is punishable by death in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Did they or didn't they? And will we ever know for certain? There are two possible explanations of what happened here, and only one is that the Newsweek got its facts wrong. In any case, whether the news is true or not will not make much difference in the Middle East, according to some observers. The anti-American sentiment is strong enough to ignite riots on its own.

But it's still true that the U.S. administration must take some blame for events of this sort. Abu Ghraib did happen, and stories about using fake menstrual blood to upset Muslim believers were there before the Koran desecration story.

At the same time, I think that killing people for destroying a book is a good example of what is wrong with literalist religions in general. And so is the idea that there is something so filthy about women and their sexuality that menstrual blood could be used as a method of torture.

Did I already mention today how I feel caged between two religious fronts here?