Shocking a Culture


by Kit Hunter

On February 20, 2012, American troops in the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan tossed boxes into an incinerator. These boxes contained what Muslims value as the word of God—the Koran. With this, they sparked a conflict that would burn on far longer than the boxes.

The troops mistakenly destroyed Korans that had been packed away for storage because of extremist scrawling and messages in the margins. The word got out of the destruction of the Koran when Afghan workers found the charred books. Six days of riots ensued. Forty-one people were killed—over 30 of them being Afghan civilians.

“It is very common for bases to have ‘burn pits,’” said Jamah Figaro, 28, who served in Afghanistan on the Pakistani border for a year while he was 24. “We’d normally burn sensitive material that had classified information, Social Security numbers and things of the sort.  I can’t imagine how Korans ended up in a burn pile that is normally reserved for information sensitive documents.”

Violence followed the burnings due to the sacredness of the book, not because of explicit directions within the text against desecration according to Sassi Raj, Islamic studies major at New York University and Sunni from Pakistan. “When you look at a Muslim home it’s always on the top shelf of the bookcase and you can’t point your feet towards it,” said Raj, 21. “You cannot be higher than the Koran. If people are sitting on the floor with the Koran you have to sit down as well.” Since the book is held in such high reverence proper treatment is implied. “I don’t think it’s specifically stated in the Koran ‘No, don’t defile this book.’ It’s something that you grow up with in the religion. It’s implied that once you get into the religion and you understand the importance of the word,” said Raj.

Muslims consider the Koran the word of God. “When people talk about the Koran, it’s different from the gospels and things where people wrote it,” said Raj. “It’s claimed to be that it’s the word of God. It’s illuminated; it’s not created. It’s revealed.” Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel gradually revealed the message of God to Muhammad from 610 C.E. to 632 C.E. The Koran is compiled of these revelations. Since the text is the word of God and not that of humans, it is held in the highest esteem. “In Islam, there are no symbols,” said Raj. “There is no priest. We do have an imam but it’s a direct connection [to God]. The one way that we can educate ourselves [about Islam] is the Koran.”

Three days after the incident President Obama apologized for the burnings. President Hamid Karzai’s office released a statement quoting Obama’s apology. “’The error was inadvertent; I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible,’ said Mr. Obama,” reported CBS News. This did not quell the violence. It raged on for three more days. “Despite America’s apology, the locals only hear what others say and that is usually all speculation,” said Figaro.

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, tension has plagued relations between the West and Islam. American forces have occupied Afghanistan for ten years. “Many of the Afghans just want to be left alone and see the battles between the Taliban and NATO as getting in their way of life,” Figaro said. “In many cases, when a village is secured and a school is built, it is praised by the locals. But something like a Koran burning or a civilian casualty can set those high points back very much.”

The reason for such unrest is found in the context in which the conflict with Americans is placed said Professor Konrad Hirschler of the University College London and Islam and the West professor at NYU London. “With the Taliban as main resistance movement the conflict is very much coined in religious terms,” said Hirschler. “The burning of Holy Scripture gains thus a much larger political significance.” The Taliban is an Islamist and political group that has battled for power in Afghanistan since 1994. They held the seat of government from 1996 to 2001 and are now rebelling against the current democratic government set in place by American diplomacy. Since government was in a religious context for many years because of the Taliban, a Koran burning is a political as well as religious issue.

According to a report by National Public Radio aired on the day of the apologies by President Obama, all soldiers will be trained on how to respect religious items of the Afghan people. “But many Afghans are wondering, after 10 years and several similar riots in the past, how such a mistake could have occurred,” said NPR. Reuters reported on the same day that “A spokesman for the NATO-led force told Reuters that the ‘troops involved in the Koran-burning incident should have known to check with cultural advisers to determine how to dispose of religious material properly.’”

Understanding the importance of the Koran in Islam does not seem to be an issue unique to the military. Terry Jones, the pastor for the Christian Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, threatened to burn 200 Korans on the 2010 anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Jones’ words incited violence across the Islamic world that killed 20 people. On March 20, 2011, eleven months before the burnings at Bagram Airbase, Jones put the Koran “on trial.” According to a report from CBS News, Jones charged it with “crimes against humanity; of promoting terrorist acts; of death, rape and torture of people worldwide ‘whose only crime was not being of the Islamic faith’; and of crimes against women, minorities and Christians, and with promoting prejudice and racism.” He found it “guilty on all counts” and burned the Koran. This sparked protests in Afghanistan, which led to an attack on the United Nations Assistance Mission and killed at least 30 people. “If the Afghani army occupied the U.S., I would expect Americans to react in a similar way,” said Hirschler.

“For [Terry Jones], he deserves that animosity that everyone has for him,” said Raj. “But these troops, they deal with so much throughout their daily lives. They’re in a completely foreign environment. They’re doing exactly what they have to with the orders they’ve been given…It’s not ignorance but it’s lack of knowledge,”

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