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Desecrating the Koran

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When I was an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, a couple of born-again Christians passed out pocket-sized Bibles near the entrance of the student center. I took one, and so did a friend of mine, a Christian who apparently had some unresolved issues. He walked over to a nearby garbage can and spiked the Bible into the bin. I didn't like what he did. So I reached into the trash, took out the Bible, cleaned it off, and decided to keep it in my care.

It was the first Bible I ever had. To this day, more than 25 years later, I've kept a Bible on my bookshelf.

It is both logical and natural for the desecration of scripture to rouse strong reactions, whether it involves the Bible or the Koran, the scripture of my own faith. Perhaps this is because humankind is inherently sensitive to metaphor and symbolism, and that desecration is easily interpreted as an affront to the larger meaning of what is defiled. Contempt shown to the Koran, for example, may be viewed as an insult to Islam and Muslims worldwide.

But the recent deadly anti-US riots triggered in Afghanistan by a Newsweek report, later retracted but generally corroborated by Red Cross sources, that the Koran had been defiled by US interrogators at Guantánamo Bay is not the kind of reaction I'm talking about. The controversy is unfortunately more complicated than a simple act of desecration because it involves a convergence of many symbols created by the emotions and decisions of the post-9/11 era.

The desecration reportedly occurred in a camp that has become the symbol of American abuse against Muslim inmates, held without charge and without external protections.

An American soldier, representing more than the sum of body and uniform, is symbolic of the nation that issues his or her rank. He or she is not only American, but a powerful nation accused of manhandling the most powerless souls. This powerful symbol is then said to have trashed another potent symbol - the Koran, which in itself has dual symbolic meaning to Muslims.

It is the scripture Muslims turn to for guidance, calm, and perspective. But it is also considered by them to be the last divinely revealed missive sent to earth, completing the spiritual arc of revelation given to Messengers starting with Adam, passing through Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and concluding with Muhammad. Muslims view the book as much greater than the sum of ink on paper. It is the musical score of Muslim spirituality, a book whose mere recitation is considered an act of worship. A small portion of the Koran pertains to sacred law. The rest speaks of God, humanity's origin, purpose, and ultimate return to God himself.

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