Magazine article The Christian Century

Qur'an Abuse Story Roils Islamic World

Magazine article The Christian Century

Qur'an Abuse Story Roils Islamic World

Article excerpt

If a Qur'an is accidentally dropped on the floor, the person who dropped it makes a contribution to charity in atonement. Copies are never placed at the bottom of a pile of books. And because the toilet is considered an impure place, the Qur'an is never taken into the bathroom.

This reverence for the Islamic holy text helps explain the explosive international reaction to a Newsweek report--since retracted because it was erroneous--that a copy of the Qur'an had been flushed down the toilet in the course of interrogations of detainees at a U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"This is the ultimate spiritual torture," said Muqtedar Khan, a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution who studies Islam and world polities. "If this was done, it is the ultimate blow."

It now appears that it was not, in fact, done. But damage has certainly occurred, reinforcing negative Islamic perceptions about Americans in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, in which women were photographed sexually degrading Muslim men.

On May 9 Newsweek reported that an internal military investigation of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which houses many Muslims suspected of terrorism, revealed that copies of the Qur'an had been placed in bathrooms and that one had been flushed down the toilet.

Anti-American riots ensued in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indonesia, resulting in at least 15 deaths and many more injuries.

Under pressure from the U.S. military, the State Department and the White House, Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker issued a retraction May 16. The report was largely based on a single, anonymous source--a government official--and that individual was no longer certain of the story's validity. The magazine later issued guidelines to tighten restrictions on using "unnamed sources" in stories.

(Some commentators have questioned the credulity of the magazine's editors, as did RNS contributor James Lileks: "Did no one at Newsweek consider the difficulty of flushing a book down the toilet?" In a related incident, a Southern Baptist pastor recently apologized for a sign in front of his church declaring "The Koran Needs to Be Flushed." See Century Marks, p. 7.)

To the world's 1 billion Muslims, the Qur'an is the literal word of God. Even translations from the Arabic do not have the same status for reliability.

"It's like Jesus, considered by Christians to be God in person. It's divine," said Imam Muzammil Siddiqui, who leads the Islamic Society of Orange County, California, and is chairman of the Council of Islamic Centers in Southern California. …

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