The U.S. Military Should Hand Out Qurans in Afghanistan as a Good-Will Gesture

Handing out free copies of Islam’s holy book to the people of Afghanistan would be the best way to diffuse the crisis caused by the military’s burning of Qurans.

03.01.12 9:45 AM ET

Days after President Obama’s apology for the U.S. military’s inadvertent burning of Qurans in a Bagram Air Base trash pit, the death toll in Afghanistan continues to rise.

At least 30 Afghans are dead, as are four Americans. Two U.S. soldiers were gunned down by a man wearing an Afghan Army uniform and another two were killed inside Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry, which runs that nation’s intelligence services. Six others narrowly escaped death when protesters threw a bomb at American forces. They are being treated for their wounds, some of which are severe.

And this might just be the beginning. The wave of violence isn’t ebbing. Thousands of people are protesting in the wind-swept open spaces outside U.S. bases, despite near-freezing weather, chanting “Death to America.” Protest leaders are calling for more attacks.

Predictably, Republicans are faulting the president’s penchant for apologies. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich even insisted that it is the Afghans who should apologize because they took lives. Democrats are lamenting the dead and asking: what else can we do?

The answer is simple, but culturally difficult for us. The U.S. military should distribute copies of the Quran in Arabic and other local languages to any and all Afghan civilians who want them. They could be handed out by Muslim chaplains as they carry out their humanitarian work in Afghanistan and by military patrols in Afghan cities and villages. They could also be offered in Afghan schools and by State Department officials and contractors, who are busy digging wells, building highways, and painting schools.

Respect for the Quran is so high that the Taliban often instructed illiterate Afghans to save any paper with printing on it, on the grounds that it might be a piece of Quran.

The American-distributed Qurans would be gratefully received. Americans, who come from a country awash in books, simply don’t realize how important books (especially “the book” for Afghanistan’s Muslims) are to a people that has very few of them. Even prayer leaders and imams often do not have a copy of the Quran, especially in remote regions. Instead, they memorize. Indeed, people who memorize the entire Quran are revered in Afghanistan and other Muslim-majority lands. And these people, these legendary memorizers, are not as rare as you might think. I’ve met several in my travels across the region.

And largely secular political leaders fail to understand how a holy book is, itself, an object of reverence. All three major monotheistic religions draw their strength from a holy book and have rituals involving the book. A Roman Catholic priest will often kiss the Gospels and hold the book aloft during a mass. Jews treat the Torah with special reverence. Muslims are not unique in this regard. And all these Abrahamic faiths have special rituals for disposing of their holy books, which usually involve burial, placing in a sealed chamber, or, for reform Jewish congregations, recycling. None involve burning. As for burning the books with the trash, that is simply unimaginable.

When you add the traditions surrounding a holy book to the perceived rarity of that book, you have an explosive combination. No, that doesn’t excuse murder and violence. But these traditions and perceptions of rarity, which combined to cause the current crisis, can be used to undo it. Passing out Qurans to Afghan civilians, if done reverently, would work to build trust and restore order. Tradition and perceived rarity would make it a gift hard to refuse and would probably generate a lot of good will. For many Afghans, the Quran would immediately become their most prized possession.

For the hardheaded, distributing Qurans would have another benefit. When some Islamic groups distribute Qurans, the books often come with an appendix written by a contemporary Arab scholar on the “necessity” of jihad. That appendix is taken more seriously because it is between the covers of a holy book. Simply giving people a true copy of the Quran, in whatever language they prefer, would inoculate them from a copy of the Quran containing that dangerous appendix.

The military already has an ample supply of Islam’s holy book. The military has stores of Qurans in Arabic and other local languages, including Pashto (the language of the Pashtuns, who make up the largest plurality of Afghans).

Yet, for the past 10 years, these Qurans have been made available only to detainees, soldiers, and chaplains. For the most part, the only way an Afghan can get a free Quran from Americans is either to wear our nation’s uniform or to be a captive of those who do.

Whatever constitutional arguments about separation of church and state might exist here, they are weak. The Constitution bars the federal government only from establishing an official state religion. Indeed, the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution at all, but in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to a Protestant leader in New England who belonged to a nonmajority church. The goal of the Founders in the Constitution’s First Amendment barring a federal religion was to prevent believers of one faith from having to pay the pastors of another faith for the right to marry or record the birth of a child. Supreme Court cases on the subject have turned on whether students in government-funded schools can be made to participate in prayers or whether religious structures can appear on federal lands. The first set of cases turned on theories of coercion (children may not feel free to dispute their teacher) and symbolism (public land being used to endorse a particular religious creed). The high court has never banned the military, or any government body, from distributing religious books to people who already follow that faith. It would be simply nonsense to bar the distribution of Qurans at Guantánamo Bay or other U.S. facilities, because the move isn’t establishing a religion or forcing anyone into a belief they do not already hold.

And the military has been making Qurans available to detainees for more than a decade without any objection on constitutional grounds. Certainly, what is legal to give to captives (who are under direct U.S. government control and, therefore, some high degree of coercion) must be legal to give to willing civilians.

Why would distributing Qurans work when a presidential apology failed?

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Apologies work only when three conditions are met: they are quick in coming (before shock hardens into anger), they are novel (the speaker is not seen as a habitual apology giver), and some degree of trust exists between the apologizer and the aggrieved (which is how sincerity is measured).

The apologies were relatively quick. The NATO general in charge of Afghanistan, Gen. John R. Allen, apologized within hours, and his words were translated and carried on radio throughout Afghanistan. The president apologized within days.

But the apologies were not seen as novel or sincere. American generals have been apologizing for misdirected bombs in Afghanistan for a decade. And the president has apologized to other peoples at other times.

More important, trust is lacking. Groups backed by Iran and by Pakistan have been very active in Afghanistan for the past decade, using their rights of free speech and assembly to make Afghans skeptical of the American presence. It amounts to two sets of foreigners complaining about a third group of foreigners, but it has proved to be effective. Indeed, many of the speakers at the current protests appear to be Pakistani, according to Afghan and Pakistani press reports. There is little the U.S. can do about these groups without undermining the constitutional rights it hopes to instill.

Distributing Qurans would be both novel and sincere. It simply hasn’t happened before, on a large scale, in Afghanistan, and distributing Qurans would be a bona fide news story. And given the reverential traditions and perceived rarity surrounding the Quran, the action would be seen as sincere. Apologies coupled with actions are more effective than words alone.

Simply calling the Afghans “crazy” or demanding an apology from them is not a solution. It is nothing more than putting more Americans in the crosshairs, both in Kabul and in New York.