Afghan Koran Burning Was a Matter of Ignorance and Logistics
Nothing provokes religious indignation like the burning of sacred texts, the very mention of which conjures images of medieval church practice, inquisition and pogrom, or the more recent communist and fascist purges of the 20th century. In the annals of history, book burnings were a useful way for those in or seizing power to consolidate their authority, seeing to it that many opposing, creative, but mainly religious thoughts would be lost to humanity in this crude and ominous way. As books represented the freedom one could obtain through learning and faith, limiting access to those materials kept the masses of those ages subjugated to the educated elites and worse yet ignorant of their own culture.
It’s not surprising then that the recently discovered attempt by US forces in Afghanistan to burn copies of the Koran, the 7th Century tome sacred to Islam, would invoke outrage and protest. The decision to burn these books can be most likely attributed to insensitivity rather than a malevolent attempt at cultural domination, and with the real cause for contempt here being a less than simple matter of logistics. As allied forces cease operations and withdraw from some areas of the region the need to dispose of materials is only natural, and while incineration seems acceptable enough for most items, the lack of distinction for scripture is numbing, so that the message conveyed and outcome is no less troubling than its medieval predecessor.
Depending on the intention of those who set the blaze then, similar practices can have either a positive or negative outcome, although in the event of the Koran burning ignorance is a poor excuse for innocence.
In a recent conversation with one of the last chaplains to serve in Iraq I found out just how deliberate the disposal of these hallowed items really was. Overseeing the removal of ten years’ worth of discarded prayer books, Bibles, and other holy and non-holy religious items was a daunting task to say the least. Too expensive to ship Stateside, the chaplain’s initial plan was to bury it all in the middle of the Iraqi desert as is the preferred and respected method for discarded sacred objects. But command wouldn’t hear of it. The fear was that if these Bibles were to be unearthed even 50 years from now it could cause an international incident accusing the Christian West of a crusade or Jews and thus Israel, both for waging war against Islam, that we can all agree would be better avoided now and in the future. American forces have left behind thousands of items valued at upwards of $580 Million. Most of the items are on-base infrastructure such as housing and office equipment but also include some military hardware either purchased by the Iraqis or for State Department use, none of which are apparently as dangerous as discarded Bibles. That said, the only choice remaining was to burn these religious objects and so in a dignified manner that would still make any man or woman of faith tear, thousands of Bibles and some yet in their original packaging were incinerated to save shipping costs and the fragile NATO-Iraqi alliance.
The only other army to have faced a similar dilemma was the Israelis as they abruptly left southern Lebanon in May of 2000. Given the proximity of the two countries it wasn’t a matter of cost over concern but rather a quick withdrawal that caused a logistical nightmare, as a nearly eighteen year presence ended in less than 48 hours. In the ensuing chaos thousands of holy books were loaded onto every possible vehicle crossing the border including tanks and armored personnel carriers. What was left behind was hastily buried in accordance with religious dictum and has remained so ever since. There is no evidence to suggest that any of this has ever been unearthed for any reason by the predominately Christian southern Lebanese or the Islamic extremist Hezbollah terror organization that now occupies the region.
Given the actions taken in Iraq, it’s hard to believe then that the attempted Koran burning in Afghanistan was as NATO commander Gen. John Allen put it “unintentional”. On the contrary, it was a logistical choice and thus deliberate, yet the only real mistake made by US forces was misjudging the reaction the burning would have. By ordering the incineration of Bibles in Iraq, American commanders who in recent years have been cajoled by political interests to accommodate local sentiment even at the price of operational success and soldiers’ lives, effectively tuned their back on the Judeo-Christian values that are the mainstay of American society. Those ideals are the reason we cherish freedom for ourselves and also bequeath it to those under our protection. However anyone who directs the burning of Bibles has in many ways forgotten what the Constitution and Flag of the United States stand for, both of which every soldier and politician is sworn to uphold. Worse yet is the fact that the US military was confounded when after having allowed the burning of our own sacred text they were confronted by others who protested the burning of theirs.
I am by no means defending what is written in the Koran or condoning the violence that continues perhaps under some pretense following this incident, but clearly Muslims in Afghanistan and around the world have the right to demand the protection of their heritage just as we should ours. In fact, we ought to learn a valuable lesson from these protesters to defend our way of life with no less zeal albeit in a dignified and dutiful manner, especially if we are to believe and convey that our cause is just and that a life of liberty and the pursuit of happiness is paramount to one of terror.