In the pre-dawn darkness Tuesday morning, I watched U.S. Gen. John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, as he issued a contrite apology for the burning of Qurans in northern Afghanistan at Bagram airfield. It had all the cultural sensitivies of a man schooled in the honor-shame culture of Afghanistan, Allen saying, “To the noble people of Afghanistan, salam-alai-kum,” (“peace be upon you”) the “tan” of “Afghanistan” pronounced with a deliberate short “a” sound, not like the long sound in “tan” leather.
“I assure you, I promise you, this was not intentional in any way. And I offer my sincere apologies for any offense this may have caused,” he said. “My apologies to the president of Afghanistan. My apologies to the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. And most importantly, my apologies to the noble people of Afghanistan.” I felt uncomfortable just listening to him bend over backwards doing cultural sensitivity gymnastics.
He went on to thank “the local Afghan people” who saved the Qurans, ending in Pashto with manana tashakor, or “thank you very much.”
Meanwhile, outside Bagram, a crowd of the “noble” people threw rocks and set an Afghan police booth on fire. Reuters later reported that shots were fired into Koran-burning protests in Kabul, wounding several people. On the second day of protests, the Washington Post reported that Afghan officials said at least three people were killed after police opened fire on protests in Parwan province, where Bagram is located, to disperse thousands of anti-American demonstrators.
Watching the video of the apology and the protests, I just thought: how unfortunate. In the West, we bend over backwards to express cultural sensitivities that the most hardened of Muslim militants or the most ordinary of Muslims don’t even practice. When militants firebomb mosques and plant suicide bombers in mosque congregations, they don’t apologize for the Qurans that burn and smolder in the aftermath of their attacks. When I was on the pilgrimage in Mecca in early 2003, my family and I were on the top floor of the sacred mosque, where Qurans were scattered on the floor, offending some but not causing a riot.
Like the video of the Marines urinating on the bodies of slain Afghans, this isn’t a debate about moral equivalence. Ten years into the war in Afghanistan, it’s shortsighted (to put it nicely) for American soldiers, to be burning Qurans.
But on the flip side, just like a lot of other misguided honors that Muslims are trying to protect in our community, from wounds dating back to the days of colonialism and harkening into the modern day with protections over the national sovereignty of Pakistan during the Osama bin Laden raid, we, as Muslims, go too far protecting our perceived “honor” at the expense of common sense. No book, while sacred, is equivalent to human life. In April 2011, demonstrators stormed the United Nations compound in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, killing 12 people, after a copy of the Quran was burned in Florida.
The latest incident was a “mistake,” Allen said. That’s believable. An intentional disregard for culture? I doubt it, considering the way spokespeople from the U.S. military to the Obama administration have been trying to apologize for the offense. This is not an offense that was scripted.
In our Muslim community, we’re taught to handle the Quran respectfully—put the Quran on the highest shelf in the room, wrap it in cloth to protect it from dust, and do a ritual washing, called wudu, before we touch it. Hardliners go further. The Internet is filled with all sorts of rulebooks and folklore, like at a conservative Muslim website that even pushes the idea that “non-Muslims” can’t touch the Quran. Another site says it’s a “great sin” to enter a lavoratory with a Quran.
Yet another conservative website declares that we can’t “stop reciting when one yawns, for when reciting, one is addressing one’s Lord in intimate conversation, while yawning is from the Devil.”
On a deeper level, I believe that we, as Muslims, have to change our relationship with the “sacred text” and make it something that we study, think about and critically examine—not “honor” with such blind reverence that we lose our sense of common sense and rationality. In Islam, we’re taught to reject idolatry. Just as some in the Christian faith struggle with “bibliolatry,” or the worship of the Bible, I would argue that, in our Muslim faith, we face a similar struggle with “Quranolatry,” a virtual idol worship of the Quran.
I learned this when I visited the pioneering Muslim feminist scholar Fatima Mernissi in Rabat, Morocco, some years ago. The pages on her Quran were dog-eared, and she read it without covering her hair or doing wudu, the traditions I was taught I had to do whenever I opened the Quran. “To me, the Quran is a research book,” Mernissi said, respectfully. Her easy access to the Quran challenged my other-worldly relationship with the Quran, and, in a very magical way, she liberated me from relating to the book as if it was beyond my capacity for research and ijtihad, or critical thinking.
Later, in the women’s balcony at my mosque in my hometown of Morgantown, W.V., I was intellectually liberated by pioneering modern-day Quranic scholars and their re-reads of the Quran. I read scholar Amina Wadud’s book, Quran and Woman: Re-reading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, and scholar Asma Barlas’s book, Believing Women: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an.
They challenged an even more sacred notion about the Quran that is most unsettling and disturbing, but also very much a part of the problematic relationship we, Muslims, too often have with the Quran: that we can’t question how we read the Quran. In fact, I learned, we can, and indeed we had to do just that if we were going to see a progressive interpretation of Islam express itself in the 21st century. Something tells me their books weren’t available at the detainee library at Bagram.
Sure, incidents like the Bagram burning fuel the haters. In a statement circulated on a propaganda research website, Jihadology.net, the Afghan Taliban turned the headline into an opportunity to blast “the American invaders” for their “barbaric” and “perverted” act.
In typical fashion, in a press announcement, titled, “Statement of Islamic Emirate regarding the desecration of the Holy Quran by the American invaders in Bagram,” the Afghan Taliban made the act an offense against “one billion Muslims worldwide,” invoking the collectivist nature of the society: “Last night, the American invaders, in accordance with their barbaric characteristics once again burnt copies of the sacred book of the Muslims (Holy Quran) with the purpose of desecration and with this perverted action, aroused the sensitivities of one billion Muslims worldwide including the Afghans.”
Not that the Taliban is keeping count, but it continued: “Ever since the invasion of Afghanistan by the American savages, this is almost the tenth time that they have carried out such barbaric actions and violated the sanctities of the Muslims in Afghanistan for the defense of which, the Muslim Afghan nation have repeatedly shown strong reactions and have taken to the streets to protest in every corner of the country.”
As news broke of the protests in Afghanistan, I ventured in the pre-dawn darkness to an Afghanistan cultural training class with U.S. military personnel. Before I left my house, I plucked two Qurans from my shelf. In class, I started with the news of the protests in Afghanistan, handing a Quran to a Muslim participant as he described how he learned to handle the book. In some families, Muslims will kiss the Quran when they receive it, bringing it sometimes to their forehead and to their eyes in an intimate connection to the book. I had the participants hold the Quran, read and discuss conflicting interpretations that come from different passages, and get introduced to how various interpretations of Quranic verses influence cultural habits in Muslim society.
Even my handling of the Quran today some would protest. I grew up learning that I couldn’t hold the Quran if I was on my period, or “menses,” as my mother loved to call it. While this borders on TMI, or “too much information,” I share these details because they speak to the very intimate rules and restrictions that we face, handling the Quran, if we accept the rules of the mainstream. During the training, my period began. I grew up believing I was then “dirty” and that I couldn’t touch the Quran until I had finished my period and bathed clean.
But even on this point, we have scholarship challenging these restrictions. A young Canadian scholar, Nevin Reda, has asserted that the typical restrictions on women not being allowed to pray or handle the Quran during their menstrual cycles needs “reevaluation.”
In my class, I held the Quran because I have come to the same conclusion that Jewish and Christian women have come to believe: that we are not impure when we are on our periods.
In handling the Quran as I did, some—such as the “noble” men pelting rocks at Bagram—would say that I dishonored the Quran. But I arrived back home safely, as did my Quran. I penned this column, my Quran beside me, and I emerge now from my seat to tuck the Quran back into my bookshelf, not on the highest shelf, but—more significantly to me— within arm’s reach.