It's now not clear the incident even happened. In its current issue, Newsweek retracted the story. And according to The New York Times, the military performed its own internal inquiry and determined that the allegation as reported by Newsweek never happened. For its part, Newsweek has printed an apology, noting in an accompanying article that its reporters relied on an (unnamed) government official with incomplete knowledge of the situation.
Nevertheless, the report has resulted in disturbances far from home, including riots in Karachi, Pakistan, and 17 deaths in eastern Afghanistan. There have also been stern rebukes from American Muslim advocacy groups. Protest letters continue to pour into the White House, and the Pentagon recently vowed to get to the bottom of what is for them a public-relations disaster.
Americans may be puzzled by the uproar. To grasp the meaning, you might parse this "outburst" of Muslim anger into two categories. Let's take the religious concerns first. Believers in any faith revere their sacred texts, and Muslims are no different. They regard the Qur'an as the written record of a revelation from God. It is the ethical, moral, and linguistic cornerstone of their faith, which they read daily in their homes and mosques. (Global modernity notwithstanding, quite a lot of the Muslim world actually prays five times a day, fasts daily for a month during Ramadan, and takes others of its basic tenets seriously enough to go through the motions with actual feeling.)
The Qur'an can tell you best what it's about. In the course of its few hundred pages, it identifies itself as a "perspicuous message" "sent as a guidance" counseling "temperance" and "patience" in hard times. It also states that the God who sent this book is the same God that Abraham, Moses, and Jesus venerated; and that He is not a distant figure removed from the activities of human beings, but rather is nearer to you "than your jugular vein," with a voice "inside your ear," if you would listen.
It is fair to say that, if you ask a believing Muslim to say a few words about the Qur'an, he or she will accord the book first place among all reading matter, then recommend you read it right away. I'm sure you can find Jews and Christians who will speak the same way about their Bibles, but in my experience if you ask them for the titles of their three favorite books, fewer would automatically list the Bible before thinking of, say, "War and Peace" or "The Adventures of Augie March."
As in other religions, too, there are physical forms of reverence for the Qur'an. A lot of Muslims wash their hands before they pick up the Qur'an. They kiss the book with a brush of the lips before they open it, and they kiss it again before they set it down. Women cover their heads with a scarf before they read it.
Widespread reverence, however, does not altogether explain the vehemence of the reaction to the Newsweek report. In addition to reverence, there is a second category of concern here that can't be ignored: that is, the context in which this event took place (if it happened).
The cells at Guantanamo, specifically reserved in the last four years for terrorists, have become symbols at home and abroad of something ethically questionable at best. At home, they have been the object of moral hand-wringing, the setting for long-running dramatic plays in New York and London, and the subject of subcommittee hearings and lengthy articles in mainstream publications questioning their legality, their propriety, and their effectiveness. And they have remained a deeply shrouded, secret nightmare land. Prisoners have been held there for years now without trial or apparent progress. Reports leaking out from rotated guards and investigators have often implied that little if any useful information has been collected.
All in all, for the Qur'an to be desecrated in Guantanamo is far more outrageous than if this had happened elsewhere. Some critics of Islam would like to ascribe to Muslims a special violence toward things they honor. I think this is bunk. For example, it is easy to imagine public outrage of a very high order indeed here in America, if, during the hostage crisis in Iran, the 100 Americans held prisoner in their consulate in Teheran had been treated to a bathroom demonstration in which the New Testament was similarly disposed of. In addition to public demonstrations, I can imagine some rather heated editorials in the normally secular pages of the New York Times and Newsweek.