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Two days of protests in Afghanistan have left seven people dead after word emerged that NATO forces may have been preparing to incinerate dozens of copies of Islam’s holy book, the Quran, at a garbage dump at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul.
Afghan Army units have battled hundreds of Afghan protesters outside the base, and there appears to be no let up in surging anger toward NATO and US forces, who have used Bagram as their base of operations for a decade in support of the government of President Hamid Karzai.
The trouble started on Monday, after Afghan employees at Bagram discovered Qurans in a heap of books being prepared for incineration. According to the BBC, the Qurans had been confiscated from Afghan prisoners at Bagram, and were thought to have contained coded messages. But the fallout from these allegations is a massive setback for US and NATO at a time when they're preparing to reduce combat forces.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta apologized for the “inappropriate treatment” of the Quran, and promised to launch an investigation into how the decision to burn the Quran was made. "These actions do not represent the views of the United States military,” Mr. Panetta said on Tuesday. “We honor and respect the religious practices of the Afghan people, without exception."
On paper, Panetta is right. US military training manuals offer very specific instructions to all soldiers and civilian employees on how to treat Muslims and their beliefs with respect. US diplomats and military commanders have spent millions of dollars in winning over “hearts and minds,” delivering food, blankets, and religious literature to distant villages; building schools, roads, and mosques. But training guidelines are only useful if they are actually put into practice. And if the past decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq is a guide, cultural and religious slights can have devastating effects on the reputation of Western forces in Afghanistan.
Remember the Newsweek story – later retracted – alleging that a US Army translator had flushed a Quran down the toilet at Guantanamo Bay detention center? The story ultimately proved false, or had insufficient backup, but it revealed that the US military did indeed have a code of conduct for US soldiers that prevented them from treating Muslims or their holy book with disrespect.
In her May 17, 2005 article, Washington Post reporter Robin Wright – a Christian Science Monitor alumnus, it must be pointed out – quoted from a 2003 Army training manual that suggested that US soldiers treat the Quran as a “fragile piece of delicate art.”
She also quoted Richard Boucher, the spokesman of the US State Department at the time, saying this: "They're not supposed to in any way disrespect or desecrate the Koran, and there are a very specific set of rules the military has on handling the Koran. We made it clear that our practices and our policies are completely different" from the Newsweek article’s allegations.
A subsequent US Army training manual, published in January 2006 and used for training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was even more specific about how US soldiers should handle the Quran. (The Monitor has obtained a digital version of this training manual.)
Fallout from the current Quran-burning controversy has led a number of Islamic scholars, including the University of North Carolina’s Omid Safi, to come forward with insights into what the US military should have done with all those Qurans.
Unfortunately, the 2006 training manual does not offer specific guidance about how to dispose of Qurans. But given the manual’s comments on respect for Islamic culture, and its acknowledgement of the importance of honor and shame in Islamic countries, it’s curious that no one at Bagram seemed to think that burning Qurans in a garbage dump might be a bad idea.
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