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Koran allegation may long resonate

The violence in Afghanistan sparked by the report -- now retracted -- of U.S. desecration  of the Koran has highlighted the sensitivity of religious symbols to Muslims at a time when some feel their faith is under attack.
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In markets and tea shops, the news bulletin flashed from transistor radios in Arabic and Urdu, Dari and Pashto. In universities and business offices, it raced across the Internet. In mosques and religious schools, it was repeated from pulpits and loudspeakers.

The report last week that U.S. military interrogators had desecrated the Koran has now been retracted by Newsweek magazine after five days of violent protests in Afghanistan that left 15 dead, peaceful protests in other Muslim countries and horrified reactions from governments across the Middle East. But the controversy has highlighted the extreme sensitivity of religious symbols, especially the Koran, to Muslims at a time when some feel their faith is under attack by the West and their fervor is easily susceptible to manipulation.

The torrent of anger over the Newsweek report was exploited by some religious and political groups, speeded by improved communications in the Muslim world and mingled with other sources of resentment against the United States. Rapidly improving technology played a role in spreading the allegation of Koran abuse to places it would not previously have penetrated -- even as recently as two years ago, when similar accounts from the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were first reported.

Mosques and Islamic groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan are no longer cloistered from the world. Some have Web sites, their leaders have satellite phones and governments have urged them to use computers to modernize their teachings. Kabul, the war-torn Afghan capital, had no phone service for years, but there are now a dozen Internet cafes; one was the target of a suicide bomber on May 7.

'The damage cannot be controlled'
The anger unleashed by the story appears unlikely to subside quickly, said analysts and leaders in several countries.

"The damage cannot be controlled by the belated retraction from Newsweek under U.S. government pressure," said Qazi Hussain Ahmad, leader of the major Islamic party alliance in Pakistan, interviewed by telephone from Islamabad. "The desecration of the Holy Koran by U.S. soldiers shows that the United States is on a path of clashing with Islam."

Ahmad said that his alliance, the Muttahida Majlis Amal, was planning nationwide protests May 27 and that it had "coordinated with Islamic organizations all over the world to join us in this day of condemnation."

Although reaction in Pakistan was relatively tame, the report that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet has dominated political discourse. Parliament passed a resolution calling on the United States to punish those behind the alleged abuse. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president and a key ally in the U.S. war on terrorism, urged the United States to "carry out a thorough investigation."

"Koranic desecration is an emotional and combustible issue, which historically has had great public resonance," said Rifaat Hussain, a scholar of security studies in Islamabad. "In the current polarized climate . . . with the Abu Ghraib incidents and the mindset that the Bush administration is capable of doing anything, it is easy for anti-U.S. forces to join hands with extremists to whip up a popular frenzy."

In Afghanistan, where reaction was the most severe, religious and political activists said crowds were easily goaded to violence because of other festering grudges, including complaints of prisoners being abused and civilians killed in U.S. military actions since late 2001. In four days of protests in a half-dozen locations, at least 15 people died in clashes with police, mostly from bullet wounds.

'Their chance to show' resentment
The protests were also fueled by the antipathy of some groups toward the government of President Hamid Karzai, which is closely allied with the Bush administration. In the view of some, the government has allowed vulgarity to creep into public life in a conservative Muslim society. Karzai is due to visit Washington later this month.

"People are full of resentment and this was their chance to show it," said Hafiz Mansour, a conservative Muslim intellectual, interviewed by telephone from Kabul. "Afghans do not forget the past; they still remember the bombing of the wedding party," he said, referring to a U.S. air assault on a village in 2002. "Our constitution says Islam should be respected, but in our capital, people are drinking liquor and half-naked girls are dancing on TV."

Karzai and his aides have said the controversy was deliberately inflamed by "enemies of the government," which includes the revived radical Islamic Taliban militia and other former militia factions from several ethnic groups that have hostile relations with Karzai.

"The opposition exploited this opportunity to damage the name of Karzai," said Sayed Amin Mujahid, a political activist and scholar in Kabul. "They are against him allowing American military bases here, so they used the [Koran] issue as an excuse to cause violence and make him look weak."

Spreading anger
The reports of Koranic vandalism also reached other Muslim countries, sparking smaller demonstrations in Indonesia and in the Palestinian territories. Analysts in both places said Tuesday that even if relatively few people took to the streets, the allegation had a powerful negative impact.

"The holy book is the word of God, and when the soldiers in Guantanamo did this act . . . it was a provocation for every Muslim," said Adnan Husseini, director of the Islamic Trust in East Jerusalem, which oversees Muslim holy places. "We don't expect this from a civilized country," he added. "This adds another difficult factor before people who believe there is a war against Islam."

In Indonesia, Islamic militants protested Friday and Tuesday in Jakarta and students burned an American flag. Observers said a badminton match with China drew more public attention, but a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said that if the reports of Koranic desecration were proved true, "that would be an insulting and immoral act."

The Koran has such exalted status among Muslims that is it never allowed to touch the ground. It is placed on a high shelf and kissed each time it is opened. Desecrating the Koran is punishable by death in Pakistan, Afghanistan and many other Islamic countries.

"The Koran is supposed to be more important than a life," said one Pakistani official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "If there is any disrespect for the Koran, whether true or not, people will believe it and feel it very badly."

Because of such feelings, many analysts said that although the initial protests had died down, they doubted the anger over the Guantanamo report would dissipate entirely, even if the allegation was proved untrue.

Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, said during a visit to New Zealand on Tuesday that Newsweek's retraction would "definitely help" prevent further protests. But in Islamabad, the information minister, Sheik Rashid Ahmed, said the retraction was "not enough," adding that the report "insulted the feelings of all Muslims."

The groundswell of anger has posed a new challenge to Musharraf, who already was under attack from religious hard-liners for his ties to Washington. Pakistani officials were stung last week when a cartoon in the Washington Times depicted a U.S. soldier patting an obedient dog labeled "Pakistan" after the capture of a senior al Qaeda leader. Dogs are considered unclean by many Muslims.

Constable reported from Washington. Correspondents John Ward Anderson in Jerusalem, Alan Sipress in Jakarta and John Lancaster in New Delhi contributed to this report.