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.
It is naïve to assume that the protests abroad were entirely a result of religious fervor. The reported violence of a week ago occurred in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. The protests there were started by students and were "Anti-American" in character. The word in Arabic for student is "talib," as in Taliban. The Newsweek article was cited in a speech, but that is somewhat different from being the root cause. One imagines there was more to these events than the spontaneous anger of insulted spirits.
Jalalabad and Karachi, where protests occurred a day or two ago, encompass the general area where, in the last year, American and British secret operations have been focused on tracking down the Al-Qaeda chiefs, including Osama bin Laden, who apparently remain in this area. Putting all this together, one could make a case for several different explanations of how and why this has occurred. However you want to interpret the information, it seems quite possible that these protests have had a political and anti-American intervention component. Once again, as so often, deep currents of faith in a local Muslim population are being focused and capitalized upon by other forces at work in the region.
Muslims bear some responsibility here. People have died over something that may-or may not--have happened. Unfortunately, without a questioning beat, long before Newsweek came forward to query its own story, the Muslim "street" and the Muslim internet were afire with righteous indignation, stoking the fires of victimhood, pushing people nearer the brink where they feel helplessly overwhelmed, nearer the edge where human beings lash out blindly.
How long will it be before we all take the hint that these publishers, broadcasters, editors, producers and others are not omniscient? They are, among other things, people chasing a story on a deadline, and they sometimes get it wrong.
Muslims abroad should practice more of that temperance and patience that the Qur'an counsels. Those of us here in America and Europe might be more careful about the news and inflamed opinions we pass along, including news from so-called reputable sources. People have died, and whether the Guantanamo Qur'an incident actually happened is now beside the point. The tension and misunderstanding on both sides that led to the riots are where we need to focus.