On February 20, 2012 several American soldiers, five having been identified as responsible at this point, took some Islamic writings including several copies of the Koran to a landfill on Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where they were burned. As soon as Afghan workers on the scene realized that Korans were being burned, they recognized what was happening as an act of desecration, and launched an immediate protest. The protest spread rapidly throughout the country and turned violent, producing at least 30 Afghan deaths, five dead American soldiers, and also produced many non-lethal casualties. The incident is under formal investigation by three distinct boards of inquiry: a U.S. military investigation with authority to recommend disciplinary action against the soldiers; a joint U.S./Afghan undertaking; and an Afghan investigation leading to recommendations by a council of religious figures.
The American governmental response has been apologetic in tone, but unconvincingly so. President Obama sent a letter of formal apology to the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, expressing regret and explaining that the incident occurred due to carelessness rather than as a deliberate expression of Islamophobic desecration. Refusing to adopt even a mildly apologetic posture, a reactionary American backlash powerfully surfaced, complaining about Obama’s stance by an insistence that it was the Afghan government that owed the United States an apology given the loss of American lives and an outburst of violence that was totally inappropriate given the accidental nature of the provocation. The reactionary presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, expressed the more or less typical Republican reaction to the incident: “I think the response needs to be apologized for, by Mr. Karzai and the Afghan people, for attacking our men and women in uniform and reacting to this inadvertent mistake.” He added, “This is the real crime, not what our soldiers did.”
Obama, as usual in such situations, seemed caught in the headlights of controversy, publicly justifying the apology as necessary “to save lives…and to make sure that our troops who are there right now are not placed in further danger.” Such a backhanded rationale leads to an ironic query: when does an ‘apology’ cease being an apology? Obama obviously wants to appease foreign anger while at the same time affirming his patriotic credentials. He is addressing contradictory audiences, and can only hope that Afghans are not listening when he offers his pragmatic reasons for sending the letter to Karzai. Yet to claim that an apology was necessary to save American lives is hardly a genuine way to express regret, which was the least that should have been done, and could have been properly joined with sentiments of bereavement associated with the American soldiers who were also victims of a misguided military intervention and occupation. In my view, Obama needlessly lost ground with all constituencies. Maybe Hillary Clinton had a point during the 2008 campaign for the presidential nomination when she famously taunted Obama: “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
What is baffling is Washington’s evident unlearning, which flies in the face of its claim that it had redesigned counterinsurgency warfare after the Vietnam experience, above all else, to exhibit sensitivity to a foreign culture that is the site of armed struggle for political ascendancy. Here the cultural insensitivity was monumental, especially if proper account is taken of earlier similar incidents. There were earlier fully publicized desecrations of the Koran that vividly demonstrated how intense a reaction would likely result from a repetition of such behavior. There was a huge outcry following disclosure that a Koran had flushed down a toilet at the Guantánamo Bay prison a few years ago. Somewhat later an American soldier in Iraq was found to have used a Koran for target practice, which provoked a storm of angry denunciations of the American role in the country.
And then there was the shocking spectacle of Rev. Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida announcing to his tiny congregation that he would burn 200 Korans on the anniversary of 9/11 in 2010, an outrage despite its non-governmental character, which was finally successfully discouraged, at least temporarily. But on March 20, 2011 the determined Rev. Jones held a ‘trial of the Koran’ and found it guilty of crimes against humanity, and burned a Koran in the church sanctuary. The result in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif was an attack on the UN Assistance Mission, killing at least 30, including 7 UN workers, and injuring 150. Our man in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, called for the arrest of Jones, but such a request was ignored as perhaps it had to be under American law; the conduct of Rev. Jones was explained (away) as an expression of American freedom of religion that did not reflect official views.
One would have supposed that a halfway vigilant imperialism would have understood that any show of disrespect toward the Koran, whether public or private, and especially by occupying American soldiers, would strike a severe blow against the American role in Afghanistan. At least with American troops, such experience would have led to introducing the most rigorous means to train and discipline occupation forces accordingly. It is not an exaggeration to say that such displays of disrespect for the Koran are more serious setbacks for Washington than would be even dramatic defeats on the battlefield. Why? Because it so clearly discredits the American claim to be present in the country as a humanitarian benefactor respectful of Afghan cultural and religious values.
There is something deeply disturbing, and revealing, about this compulsive inability to show respect for the most sacred artifacts of a foreign civilization. The Koran is the holiest of scripture not only for Islam as the dominant religion of the country, but also underpins the unity embedded in the wider cultural identity of the Afghan people. It is a far more potent symbol of Afghan unity than is the national flag or constitution of this otherwise most fragmented of countries, and possibly it is the only source of unity other than opposition to foreign occupation. Americans would themselves react furiously, and likely violently, were the Bible to be burned by foreign military personnel somehow present on national territory, but the truth is that the imperial mindset is utterly incapable of comprehending such a logic of reciprocity, or its ethical analogue, the golden rule. The opposed imperial logic has a different ethic: the wrongs that we do to others we occasionally will excuse as accidental, while being incapable of even imagining that others might dare to do them to us, and if they were stupid enough to do so, a righteous fury of vengeance would be appropriately unleashed.
Tom Friedman, whose arrogance is as boundless as the globalization he blandly celebrates, mimics Republicans by telling his readers that Afghan political and religious leaders have made themselves primarily at fault for their failure to protest strongly against “the killing of innocent Americans,” especially given the accidental nature of the Koran desecration and Obama apology. The liberal interpretation of the incident is only softer in tone than is the Santorum reactionary rant, and suggests an uncritical American consensus that is ready to fight war after war in distant countries without having the slightest pang of conscience or the wisdom to stand quietly before mirrors of self-criticism.
In an important sense, these American soldiers, including those who participated in this unfortunate incident, were fundamentally ‘innocent.’ They are themselves both participants and victims of an occupation of a foreign country that they and their leaders do not understand, a military mission that never have been attempted, and is proving as futile as those many previous Western attempts to domesticate Afghanistan by force of arms, a sorry story expertly chronicled in Deepak Tripathi’s illuminating book, Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (Washington, DC; Potomac). Those who are most responsible for this crime, in my judgment, are those who initially mandated such a war a decade ago and now perpetuate it, and this includes the president and those who favored the war policies that have misguidedly led to a ten year military occupation of Afghanistan with little result except this upsurge of vitriolic anti-American sentiment and a severely torn country. The best that United States policy planners can hope for after inflicting such an ordeal is reaching a power-sharing deal negotiated with the Taliban, the original mortal enemy, which portends a political future for Afghanistan not at all to Washington’s liking, nor consoling to the majority of Afghans. After all those billions spent, lives lost, sacrificed, and misshaped, and devastation wrought there is nothing at the end but the slim hope of learning from defeat after the fact not to go abroad in search of foreign monsters. With the Iran war drums beating loudly, it seems like an idle fancy to suppose that the American political elite will seek the intensive rehab it needs to have any chance of recovering from this addictive militarism that brings suffering to others and defeat and decline to itself.
Of course, unleashing violence in response to desecration does make for a sorry spectacle, and reflects badly on the quality of religious leadership in Afghanistan. At the same time the call of the Afghan clerical leadership for an end to the American nighttime raids on Afghan homes and the insistence that Americans turn over the administration of prisons to the Afghan government seem like reasonable demands long overdue. They touch the raw nerve of the American occupation, and its undisguised contempt for the self-determination of the Afghan people. In light of this, such reasonable demands will not be fully accommodated, but maybe partially accepted as the price of retaining the authority of a foreign occupier. In this vein, there are reports that the American prison authorities will turn over Afghan prisoners, but retain a veto to deny some transfers.
These American tactics of counterinsurgency are consistently perceived by the Afghan people to be principal sources of ‘occupation terror.’ The American response to these demands sounds as though lifted from a colonial handbook: raids in the middle of the night are effective operations and that the Afghan judicial system is not capable of the handling the legal issues associated with dangerous Afghan detainees. Such a response unintentionally poses an awkward question: ‘who is entitled to govern Afghanistan at this time?’ It has long been the awkward truth that the limits of Karzai’s mandate are not set in Kabul, but by distant Pentagon and White House officials, a reality that makes a mockery of American claims of respect for Afghan rights of self-determination.
This inflammable incident touches on the essence of military intervention and foreign occupation, much more so than the secondary question of whether to treat Koran burning as a mistake or crime. The act of burning is of course from differing perspectives both a mistake and a crime, but more than this, burning the Koran is a telling metaphor of all the many instances of flawed Western diplomacy consisting of military intervention and foreign occupation. Such diplomacy flies in the face of the collapse of colonialism and the rise of non-West religion and culture, and produces one costly geopolitical failure after another. To burn the most holy scripture of a culture, whether by inadvertence or calculation, is the most delegitimizing acknowledgement of bad motives and intentions that it is possible to imagine, as well as a dismaying display of cultural insensitivity.
In this regard, Koran burning may be as provocative in its assault on Afghan political culture as was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi with respect to the authoritarian cruelty of the Tunisian regime presided over by the tyrannical rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was driven from power as a direct result. The failure of the United States Government even now to appreciate the seriousness of what has happened, despite the several earlier intimations of the great popular significance attached to any show of disrespect toward Islam throughout the Muslim world, is altogether discrediting to its claims of benevolence and undermining of its claims to be quelling the global threat of anti-Western terrorism. When the culture screams, it is time to leave!