They scrawled the words "Fuck yeah" on the pages of the Holy Koran and then they shot it full of holes. Last week a few American soldiers in Iraq thought it would be cool to use the Koran for target practice. The US commander on the ground, Major General Jeffery Hammond, has quickly apologized to try to repair the damage. I hope it will be enough, but I seriously doubt that fallout from this act of stupidity by a few soldiers can be contained.
I am a Muslim. I am an American. I am deeply offended. Those who know me know that I am not easily offended in these matters.
Muslims consider the words in the Koran to be the literal word of God. Korans in Muslim homes are kept in a place of honor, usually displayed on a stand made to hold the book on a mantle or another prominent place. Muslims consider it a grave insult if the Koran comes into contact with one’s feet or is desecrated in any other way. Every Muslim understands this. It is instinctive to protect the Koran.
So when an American soldier desecrates a Koran and riddles it with bullets, the message is clear: it does not need any translation. This isn’t the "cartoon controversy" where a bunch of radical Islamists thumped their chests in response. This will hit home with the moderate Muslims around the world. Moderate Muslims are not going to go out on the streets and march in protest. But they will understand the message coming from America. At a time when America needs the moderates in the Muslim world to rally to the cause and isolate the extremists, this kind of act will cause the moderates to sit on their hands. I doubt very many Muslims around the world will care to make the distinction between the act of a few American soldiers and the policy of the United States. That kind of nuance is likely not going to translate well.
This kind of action is a victory for the hatemongers on both sides. It makes my conversations with Muslims in the country of my birth – Bangladesh – that much more difficult. I will trot out the standard line about how this was an act of a few and does not represent the attitude of the United States government toward the Muslims of the world. I will get a polite hearing, but I doubt anyone will believe me. Already I am confronted with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay when I speak out against human rights violations in the Muslim world. At least in those cases I can make the admittedly weak case that those abuses were carried out in the overzealous response to terrorists acts – that those acts were targetted at who the United States thought posed a security threat to itself. In this case, however, there is no getting around the fact that the target is the over one billion Muslims around the world.
I am not so worried that this particular act will increase the level of terrorism against the United States. Those who would act in violence don’t particularly need this as an excuse to do their acts – if it wasn’t this, they would find another justification. But I do worry that the long-term goal of winning "hearts and minds" just took a major blow. I don’t know how many more such blows can be absorbed before the divide between the Muslim world and the West is irretrievably made permanent.
Those of us who stand with a foot in each culture have a responsibility to try the bridge the gaps of misunderstanding and mutual fear that have hightened since the September 11th attacks. But our voices are drowned out, along with the voices of the majority of those in the West and in the Muslim world who simply want to live in peace to raise their families, when this kind of act is carried out by a "strategic corporal" . This must stop.
UPDATE: I crossposted this on Daily Kos last night. It has reached the recommended list and launched a vigorous debate in the comments. Now there are over 700 comments on the post and the debate continues. The diary has elicited strong opinions on all sides and quite a lot of insightful commentary.