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June 7, 2005:

Why the Riots?
Qur’an desecration seen as attack on Muslim way of life

by Jon M. Sweeney

As you probably know by now, since 9/11, several guards and interrogators at the U.S. military base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been accused of desecrating copies of the Qur’an, Islam’s holy scriptures, in a crude attempt to rattle Muslim prisoners into talking.

A month ago, Newsweek reported that a copy of the Qur’an had been flushed down a toilet. As this news spread around the world, it quickly came to reinforce the perception in Muslim countries that the U.S. war on terrorism is also a Christian war on Islam. Riots erupted, most notably in Afghanistan, and these riots resulted in more than a dozen deaths.

Within a week, under intense pressure from the U.S. State Department, Newsweek retracted its story. They said that their information was not solid. Late on Monday afternoon, May 16, Newsweek issued a retraction.
By May 27, more details came out about the abuse of the Qur’an by American interrogators in Cuba. The results of a U.S. military investigation were revealed to the press; there were no admitted Qur’an flushings, but there were still several acts of desecration and abuse of the holy book.

But why would Muslims riot over the treatment of a book, albeit their most holy of books? It’s not as if they were protesting the abuse of human prisoners at Guantanamo Bay—which has also been alleged by former prisoners, military and non-military personnel who have worked at the camp, and most recently, by Amnesty International in its new, annual report. (On May 25, Amnesty’s secretary general, Irene Khan, called Guantanamo “the gulag of our times.”)

You hardly ever see a liberal or progressive Muslim in television or print news. The Muslims who reacted around the world to the desecration of the Qur’an are Orthodox. They believe that the Qur’an is the literal, unadulterated, unedited, direct word of God (Allah) to humanity. They believe that all other scriptures and holy books are secondary.

Irshad Manji, the Canadian author of the book The Trouble with Islam, teaches that progressive Muslims need to create more opportunities for dissent. In her op-ed on the Guantanamo Bay crisis, published in the Los Angeles Times, she wrote: “Riots in Afghanistan have already resulted in at least 14 deaths. Aid workers have been attacked; their offices burned. How does this benefit the cause of dignity — for anyone?” But the vocal majority of Muslims in the Middle East and Asia do not listen to voices such as Ms. Manji’s.

Twelve thousand Muslim protestors filled the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, last month to march against the United States. In Lebanon, as many as 5,000 Muslims marched after Friday prayers, and chanted “America, listen! With my blood I will protect my Qur’an!” Traditionally Muslim countries see America’s power in the world as a threat to their way of life. Crass treatment of Islam’s holy book emphasized that threat powerfully, concretely.

The Qur’an is more than a symbol to the Muslims who are outraged. Our disrespect of the book is interpreted as reflecting our stance on the future of Islam, relations with Muslim countries, and individual Muslims. For those who feel threatened by a nation that has toppled two regimes in as many years, our actions connote an attitude of superiority that could jeopardize not only their religion, but every aspect of their lives.

Jon Sweeney is an author and editor living in Vermont. His new book is

More by Jon Sweeney.

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