Monday, May 16, 2005

Quran Desecration at Guantanamo Bay

Last week, Newsweek Magazine published an explosive article that revealed how American interrogators in Guantanamo Bay had desecrated copies of the Quran, including this paragraph:
Investigators probing interrogation abuses at the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year. Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell Newsweek: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Koran down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash.

The bit about the Quran being flushed down the toilet was picked up and reported by al-Jazeera, resulting in protests and riots throughout the Middle East, including riots in Afghanistan that resulted in several deaths.

And now, this week, Newsweek published a retraction in which it asked, "how did Newsweek get its facts wrong?"

A more appropriate question is "did Newsweek really get its facts wrong?" Or, did Newsweek buckle under pressure from the US government and its own knowledge that the story was uncorroborated. Newsweek's retraction never actually said they'd uncovered proof that their article was wrong, just that it was uncorroborated. It is important to note that "uncorroborated" does not mean inaccurate, it simply means a story that does not have a lot of evidence backing it (such as a report from a single source with no other evidence). Supermarket tabloids (National Enquirer, the Star, etc.) make lots of money by publishing uncorroborated stories - some turn out to be true, some turn out to be wrong. But, for mainstream news media, the standards for what is publishable are generally higher.

Many Christians may read this and wonder what the big deal is - after all, if someone flushed a bible down the toilet, it would not raise much of a concern among Christians, since for Christians, the bible is just a book. However, for Muslims, each copy of the Quran is considered sacred, much like the Catholics and other Christian branches consider the communion hosts (bread, water, and wine) consecrated after they have been blessed. This is taken so seriously that in a Catholic church, these items are stored in a special vault called the tabernacle. Muslims give each copy of the Quran the same level of reverence, and will not even allow their hands to touch a Quran unless they have first gone through a ceremonial cleansing ritual. Thus, the reaction of a Muslim to a Quran being flushed down the toilet is similar to the outrage one might expect from a Catholic who learned that someone broke into his local church and flushed the communion hosts down the toilet or urinated on the altar.

One big contributing factor to this strong negative reaction is that it can easily be seen to be part of a pattern of disrespect of the US towards Islam. Consider if a story came out that an interrogator in a prison in Mexico, or Germany, or Brazil flushed a Quran down the toilet, there may be some shocked reactions, but no angry protests, because people would tend to think of it as an isolated incident by a single interrogator. For the United States, however, this was not viewed as too surprising, given the headlines we've grown used to seeing over the past several months: male prisoners being made to simulate sex acts with each other in Abu Ghraib, allegations of a female interrogator pretending to smear an inmate with menstrual blood in Guantanamo Bay, using an historic minaret as a sniper post, etc. With all this, flushing the Quran down the toilet sounds like a logical next-step. While some people were shocked at the Newsweek article last week, I don't think there was much surprise from anyone. In that light, this week retraction was actually more of a surprise than last week's revelations.

Guantanamo Bay is not a vacuum, and whatever interrogation techniques are used there will eventually become public knowledge. In that light, the US military needs to realize that it is engaged in a war against terrorists, not a war against Islam, and even though the majority of the terrorists they are fighting now are Muslims, there are millions of other Muslims around the world who do not support those terrorists. Using steps in an interrogation that are an affront to the prisoner's religion can easily be considered an insult to all Muslims, and a slap in the face to Muslims who have supported the US efforts thus far. When these actions become public-knowledge, they serve only to undermine America's war on terror, bolster terrorist support, and erode support for America's actions in the Muslim world.

This war on terror would be so much easier to win if America would stop shooting itself in the foot....