Wednesday, 18 May 2005
Newsweek magazine recently reported that U.S. soldiers at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp desecrated copies of the Quran in various ways, including flushing pages down the toilet. Riots broke out in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and now Newsweek has issued a retraction and an apology. U.S. government spokespeople, including White House spokesman Scott McClellan, have sharply criticized Newsweek for getting the story wrong, and they have called on the magazine to explain what happened. The issues surrounding this incident call for comments from several perspectives.
First, although Newsweek has backed away from its story, claiming that it can't verify it, I have a very strong suspicion that the story was probably accurate, maybe in regard to the particular incident it reported but certainly in regard to the practice of disrespecting the beliefs of Muslim prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay prison, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Despite the fact that several enlisted personnel have received prison sentences, reprimands, and discharges for their involvement in the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal, and despite the fact that the general who supervised the prison, Janice Karpinsky, has been demoted, many of those who planned and approved the sexual-psychological abuse have gotten away scot-free. That Muslim detainees at Guantanamo Bay have also had their religious beliefs insulted is hardly in doubt, and it doesn't take much imagination to think that acts that Muslims would consider desecration of the Quran have been perpetrated by American guards and interrogators. If Newsweek's story was false, the magazine should certainly print a retraction and perhaps an apology. However, it should not shy away from reporting other abuses of human rights and religious practices that the U.S. government or others perpetrate.
Second, it is the height of hypocrisy for the U.S. government to criticize Newsweek for publishing information that may be false. The U.S. government launched the war on Iraq on information that was not only false (WMDs, mobile bioterrorist labs, yellowcake uranium, aluminum tubes for rockets, 45-minute launch windows, etc., etc.) but known to be false. The papers in Britain have been consumed in recent weeks with a leaked memo that shows that President Bush had decided to attack Iraq by the middle of 2002 and was looking for ways to justify a decision he had already made. If Newsweek's story was false--and it may not have been--then perhaps a couple of dozen people died as a result. Tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 1600 Americans have already died as a result of Bush's war that was launched on false pretenses. Which is worse?
Third, Muslims have the right to complain loudly if the Quran is treated in a manner that they consider disrespectful. However, they do not have the right to resort to violence to make their point. Human lives are infinitely more important than words printed on pieces of paper, no matter how important or sacred one might consider those words. The words of the Prophet do not fail just because an ignorant, intolerant unbeliever mistreats the Quran. It is high time the fundamentalists of all faiths learn that their actions have a much greater potential to hurt the cause of their religion than anything that their opponents might do. Tearing up a copy of the Quran, putting a cross in a jar of urine, or burning a flag do not harm a religion or a nation. Calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie because of his writings, dropping bombs in the name of Christ, and burning down a mosque in India do harm Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism, respectively, for they demonstrate that some of the adherents of these religions don't have the faintest understanding of the essence of their faith.