25 February 2012

Burning Qurans and Irrational Reactions

Long ago German poet Heinrich Heine said “When books are burned in the end people will be burned too”. This had always seemed an apt quote to me, as it helps highlight the nefarious connection between the burning of books, and the inevitable going after of the people whose views are expressed within. But it was only recently that a Hitchens article informed me that this was actually first describing something we are seeing again in the news; the burning of the Quran.
Local sanitation workers from the Afghan city of Kabul were removing waste from the air base north of there when they discovered some partially burnt copies of the Quran. Apparently the books had been confiscated from a detention centre’s library after Taliban prisoners were suspected of using them to pass messages to each other. The books had inadvertently been disposed of incorrectly, and wound up in an incinerator.
U.S. officials on the scene were quick to apologise for this, and assure the local government that not only was this not intentional, but that it would be investigated, and steps taken to ensure such a mistake would not happen again.
NATO commander General John Allen had this to say of the incident:
"When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them. The materials recovered will be properly handled by appropriate religious authorities,"
, and:
"We are thoroughly investigating the incident and are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again. I assure you, I promise you, this was not intentional in any way."
A very quick and overtly anxious apology for a seemingly innocent mistake. You can sense the fact that there is little doubt that such a thing will bring about a violent response.
It is odd that we live in the third millennium, hundreds of years after the enlightenment, and yet we can still count upon violent and murderous reactions from not only the desecration of a mere book, but also any instances of its accidental destruction. Exemplifying this tacit acceptance of Muslim overreaction, the President of the United States also went out of his way to send a letter to his Afghan counterpart, apologising for the incident.
The Associated Press reports the letter from Obama expressing "deep regret for the reported incident", with the president then going further to state that "The error was inadvertent; I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible".
In a response to the events, the Afghan president Hamid Karzai remarked that the American officer responsible for the partial smouldering acted "out of ignorance and with poor understanding" with regard to the Qurans importance, but his government has nevertheless put forth an official demand that there be a public trial and punishment for those involved.
NATO has agreed to a trial, and assured that such things will not happen again in the future, though one wonders if this will be enough to placate the Afghan government. After all, there is a tacit acceptance of the fact that this was not intentional in the President Karzai’s remarks, yet the steadfast demand of punishment for those involved seems a bit sinister to me. After all, what form of trial and punishment under American principles could result in a satisfying outcome for the Afghan people?
Speaking of the Afghan reaction, it is important to realise what has happened in response to this discovery of partially burnt books; after all it is not merely a diplomatic affair, and the easily inflamed muslin sensibilities I mentioned earlier have again been quick to take offense wherever they find it. Over the past few days protests have erupted across the Afghanistan countryside, and Taliban officials have made their all too common call for blood. A statement from a Taliban spokesman named Zabiullah Mujahid was spread via email calling for the Afghan people to  "kill them (Westerners), beat them and capture them to give them a lesson to never dare desecrate the holy Koran again".
Though the effectiveness of this teaching method is quite dubious, the call to arms has nevertheless achieved its effect on members of the Afghan population, including an incident where a man wearing an Afghan military uniform opened fire on two NATO at a military base in Khogyani in eastern Nangarhar province, killing them both.
Honestly as much as the Taliban likes to present themselves as a pious Muslim group, any cursory look at their credentials and past actions soon takes them down a peg as people able to criticise the American military’s accidental destruction of these books. The Taliban regularly attacks not only western troops in their country; but also their fellow countrymen. There is no way you can tell me that in their campaign of indiscriminate bombing and murder, they too have not been responsible for the destruction of a few Qurans as literary collateral damage.
In total eleven people have died so far at the hands of these protestors, none of which had anything to do with the accidental burning of Qurans. It’s such a terrible loss of life, and writing this now I still find it hard to accept these events as really taking place in the age we live in. People being killed because a book was burned; it sadly proves Heinrich Heine quote to be all too true.
The shear irrationality of the response is striking. Angry crowds can be seen roaming the streets of Afghan towns, black smoke billowing into the sky behind them as they chant “Death to America" and "Die, die, foreigners".
But again, as hard as it seems to reconcile these facts with the way we believe the world should be, a quick look at the past few years in Afghanistan shows us that sadly this is all but the norm over there.
Let’s not forget that last year the intentional burning of a Quran 12,000km away in the United States caused a similar response in this oh so offendable portion of the Afghan public. 12 people were killed then when a mob stormed a United Nations office, and a further 12 protestors were killed in other demonstrations across the country.
Going back even further, in 2005 after rumours of a Koran being desecrated in Guantanamo Bay were promulgated, riots and spates of indiscriminate killing left at least 17 people dead. And this time it was just rumours!
At least back then the Afghan president was quick to denounce the violence, and himself pointed out that a library set alight by fanatics in Jalalabad had contained over 200 copies of the ‘holy’ text, yet there is never any retaliation for the loss of these tomes.
An article in the New York Times captured the irrational nature of these frenzied protests. It reports that in one town subjected to various violent protests and shootings, interviewed townspeople “were sometimes confused about details, but they were convinced that Americans had done something terrible against their religion”.
That such a fury can be whipped up in a population based on spurious claims, distant benign events, and accidental actions, is a very worrying thing. Stories of protests turning into mobs, and Taliban agents fanning the flames of hatred, are only possible when we afford things in the real world a divine status, and put their importance above such earthly affairs as human life and dignity.
The sight of these partially burned book can whip up a frenzy of violence and denunciation toward ‘westerners’, yet pictures of young Afghan girls whose faces have been melted away through vicious acid attacks produce no similar outrage against the Taliban agents responsible.
There will be a trial soon of the people at the American base who some would say are responsible for this incident, but no doubt the outcome will do little to placate those incensed by the past day’s events. There is simply no way that you would be able to apply any form of rational secular justice on whoever is held responsible that would be considered acceptable by those who believe their books to be written by a god, and whose desecration demands a far more earthly punishment.
Even if you are willing to concede that there should be a punishment given to those who wilfully desecrate objects of religious importance to other people (and I don’t think such a concession should be made, provided there is no destruction of private property), this case provides a clear example of not only an accidental or improper destruction of religious materials; but also one that was intended to be done privately, so that no anguish or offense was the intended result.
Those who resort to violence in order to force their religious views onto others should be looked upon with derision, and those who inflict this most foul tool upon innocents, and do so indiscriminately in the name of their god, should be afforded no place in modern society.

And that is the end of my surprisingly long rant.

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