Hindsight being what it is, it’s easy to say that if U.S. personnel in Afghanistan hadn’t been briefed on the handling of Islamic religious materials before this week, they should have been.
It might have prevented the grievous insult to Muslims that occurred when Korans were taken to the “burn pit” at Bagram Airfield along with items left behind by former Muslim detainees. That the burning of the Korans — the precise number is disputed but ranges from four to about 60 — was inadvertent does little to excuse the action. Instead, it makes one wonder what it will take for U.S. soldiers or civilians to treat the Koran, a sacred object to Muslims, with respect. It is their holy book, and desecration is regarded as an offense against God.
Desecration also sparks violent protests. Last April, after a fundamentalist preacher in Florida with only a few dozen followers burned a Koran, outraged Muslims stormed the U.N. headquarters in Mazer-e-Sharif and killed three U.N. workers and four Nepalese guards who hadn’t done anything wrong.
This week at the gates to Bagram Airfield, about 2,000 protesters, some of them throwing stones and others yelling “Die foreigners,” were expressing similar sentiments.
Appropriately, Marine Gen. John Allen, who is in charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, issued a quick and sincere apology that was broadcast across Afghanistan. He explained that military personnel had “improperly disposed of a large number of Islamic materials,” including Korans, and that when their mistake was discovered, “we immediately intervened and stopped them.” He also credited and thanked Afghans who worked at the base for their role in halting the desecration, recovering as many Korans as they could and reporting the incident.
Unfortunately, nothing Gen. Allen could say was enough to dissuade those who sought to exploit the incident for their own purposes. The Taliban, for example, issued a statement calling the burning of the Korans “barbarous” and just one of many such actions by the “Western invaders.”
The governor’s office in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan was less shrill but still critical, describing the incident as “a shameful move by some stupid individuals.”
It was a serious mistake by individuals who were either careless or ignorant. That, Gen. Allen promised, won’t happen again. Among changes he instituted as a result of this incident is an order that all coalition forces undergo training in the next two weeks on identifying religious materials, understanding their significance and their proper handling and storage.
Better late than never.