Afghan values and Quran burning

While much of the American media is obsessed over how to best exploit something a political opponent said on the radio last week, there are a few other religion stories out there. We looked at media coverage of the murderous riots in Afghanistan over inadvertent Quran-burning already but as the riots continue, so does the coverage. What I liked about earlier coverage was how it put the riots in context of the larger story about Afghan politics. I critiqued some of the coverage for failing to explain enough about the doctrine behind the riots, including how to properly dispose of Qurans.

This New York Times piece about the chain of events that led to the riots is a really good read and answers many questions, including one I had previously about what books other than Qurans were involved in the situation.

It's basically a play-by-play of how the episode could have been headed off at several points but wasn't, due to "mishaps, poor judgments and ignored procedures."

The ending includes this nugget about Muslim views on how to dispose of Qurans:

What should have happened was far different, Maulavi Dad said. He gently lifted up his Koran, a beautifully bound one with dark blue ornamentation, and described the religiously approved way one would dispose of it if it were damaged or too old to use.

“We have two suggestions: You can cover it with a clean cloth and bury it on holy ground, a shrine or a graveyard, a place where people don’t walk,” he said.

“Or you can wrap it and place it in the sea, the river, in flowing water.”

He added, “You see, we believe the earth and the water are the two cleanest elements on the planet, and since we give great value to holy books and papers, this is where we bury them.”

When we discussed the lack of coverage about proper disposal earlier, a reader sent along this link to a Slate explainer on just that. You'll notice that the linked piece doesn't match exactly with what Maulavi Dad says above, although it comports with it. It makes me wonder if there are particular Afghan variations on this theme.

Further up in the story, we touch on other themes, such as a doctrinal opposition to even the possibility of forgiveness for this inadvertent burning, at least according to the pre-eminent body of Afghan religious leaders

The responses highlighted continuing and deep differences between American and Afghan concepts of justice: American officials insist that no deliberate insult was intended and that the military justice system and apologies should suffice, while the Afghan religious leaders demand that public identification and punishment of the offenders is the only path to soothe the outrage of Afghans over what they see as an unforgivable desecration of God’s words.

“There are some crimes that cannot be forgiven, but that need to be punished,” said Maulavi Khaliq Dad, a member of the Ulema Council. “This is not any book; this is the book of the whole Muslim nation, and if a few people are punished, America will not be destroyed. But if that doesn’t happen, it will create animosity and enmity between America and the Muslim world.”

I am curious, again, if this is just an Afghan view on punishing inadvertent burnings of Qurans or if this is more generally the position held by Muslim clerics.

The piece also explains a bit about why the Qurans were a problem to begin with:

At the very least, the accounts of the Americans and the Afghans involved in the investigation offer a parable of the dire consequences of carelessness about Afghan values, despite the cultural training required for most American service members serving in Afghanistan.

The account begins about a week before the burning, when officers at the detention center in Parwan became worried that detainees were secretly communicating through notes scribbled in library books, possibly to plot an attack.

“There was a suspicion that this was being used as a means to communicate, internal and external,” said the American military official familiar with the investigation, adding that the fear was that the detainees might “organize.”

Two Afghan-American interpreters were assigned to sift through the library’s books and set aside those that had writing that might constitute a security risk, said Maulavi Dad and other members of the Ulema Council team who visited the detention center and were briefed by the military.

By the time the interpreters were finished, 1,652 books were stacked on the floor and tables for removal, including some Korans, many other religious or scholarly texts, and a number of secular works, including novels and poetry.

I included that first paragraph only because I find it interesting how the stories about Afghan values don't mention whether anyone has a problem with all of the killing of people in response to the inadvertent burning. (It also reminded me a bit of that Napier story about how to handle value conflicts.) Have the clerics been asked whether they think inadvertent burning of Qurans is a capital offense?

I also wonder, still, whether prisoners writing in a Quran to communicate with each is considered a defacement of the book or not. Is any writing in the margins or other areas of a Quran considered OK? What's the standard? Sometimes you read about Muslim terrorists blowing up a mosque, presumably destroying Qurans therein. Is that a problem? Is there a clear standard for when it's OK to burn a Quran and when it's not? Does everyone else wonder about these questions or am I over thinking things?

Anyway, the bulk of the article just goes through all the steps from the sorting to the burning. It may not deal overtly with religion in those parts, but it's a fascinating read and some solid reportage.

Quran photo via Shutterstock.

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