It was another self goal, another poor damage control exercise and another bout of huffing and puffing by the Bush Administration. The Pentagon pounced on Newsweek and forced a retraction of its report about the desecration of the Quran at Guantanamo Bay, but a retraction won’t a story end. Besides, no one in the lanes and bylanes of the Muslim world will believe the retraction. The story has a million legs now and it will travel, provoking generational anger. Mischief by local political leaders can’t be ruled, out but the ammunition came from America.
There is just too much out there about the tactics and torture -- and testimony from detainees who have returned from behind the American barbed wire. They have told of pork being forced down throats, beards being forcibly shaved, Qurans being defiled, women interrogators using unspeakable methods to rattle and shock prisoners. British detainees released from US custody have said insults to the Quran were routine at Guantanamo. Over in Iraq, the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib has been documented in photos. The torture techniques were built around cultural insults to deliberately hurt and shock Muslim prisoners -- from the use of dogs to women soldiers parading naked prisoners to reports of a woman guard sitting topless on a detainee to extract information. Whether or not all of the allegations are true hardly matters at this stage. The photos from Abu Ghraib certainly are, and the Guantanamo Bay chapter builds on the preface the world is familiar with.
A lawsuit filed in Britain last year cites abuse of British detainees by US guards at Guantanamo Bay prison, including incidents of insults to the Quran. Kristine Huskey, a lawyer representing Kuwaitis incarcerated at the same prison, says her clients reported similar events, including at least one case where a detainee watched a guard insult the Quran. In short, the Newsweek report is not the first allegation to hit the street.
Pentagon’s attempt to douse the fire with clever deflection was a sorry attempt at damage control. Gen. Richard Myers, America’s highest military officer stood on the podium to deny the desecration of the Quran by interrogators but then went on casually to add that the only Quran-related entry in the army logs was an unconfirmed report about a prisoner tearing pages of the holy book. The detainee allegedly used it to block the toilet as a sign of protest. The subtext: if anything happened to the holy book, it probably was done by a Muslim.
But here’s the cultural street reality -- many in the Muslim world will easily believe the Newsweek report, given the history of insensitivities by the Bush Administration, and discard the log entry of a fellow Muslim insulting the holy book. The comeback from the Pentagon to this whole controversy and violence has been bumbling and corny. One has to wonder about how little they know of the world they rule. For the record -- Hindus and Muslims keep their holy books in a specific spot, often in decorative cloth covers, and they don’t move them around like a John Grisham novel. They do not even touch it without being "clean." The Muslim street will never believe that a Muslim will willingly defile the Quran, least of all for reasons cited by Gen. Myers.
The chatter on Christian websites about the Quran incident is also interesting. It gives an insight into how prone Americans can be to judging other realities with their cultural coordinates. A running theme in the discussions: "Well, we wouldn’t have felt as insulted as to provoke violence if the Bible had been desecrated or placed in the bathroom." Yes, I have noticed that some people read the Bible in the bathroom, but it doesn’t mean other religions treat their books the same way. Why is it so difficult to imagine that cultures can be very different and what is acceptable in one may be blasphemous in another? If for no other reason but political correctness -- an American gift to the world?
Besides, there are differences of status of the holy book. The Bible is not believed to be the direct word of God but set down by the saints. But the Quran is believed by Muslims to have been transmitted to Prophet Mohammad from God through Gabriel. It is considered a direct edict from Allah and therefore its importance is of another magnitude.
Demands for an apology not just from Newsweek but from senior levels of the Bush Administration are growing, if the placards carried by protesters are any indication. The protests have spread from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Palestine to other parts of the Arab world. Indian Muslims too have demonstrated in Mumbai, calling the reported desecration a "challenge for Muslims" worldwide. Every time the Bush Administration presents a positive (an Iraqi election, a detectable movement in the Middle East peace process, a school for Afghan girls) to convince the Muslim world that its war is not against Islam, its henchmen go and paint the whole picture black.