The shakily sourced May 9 Newsweek report that interrogators had desecrated a Koran at Guantanamo Bay is likely to do more damage to the U.S. than the Abu Ghraib prison scandals. What is also deeply disturbing is that the journalists who put the report out seem somewhat clueless about this reality.
Since the story was published there has been outrage and mayhem in much of the Muslim world. Demonstrations erupted in Pakistan after Imran Khan, a former cricket player and now opposition political figure, read sections from the article at a press conference.
Riots broke out throughout Afghanistan, mobs attacked government and aid-organization offices, and 15 people have died so far. Anti-American demonstrations have taken took place from north Africa to Indonesia.
Sheikh Sayed Tantawi, the head of Al-Azhar in Cairo, the major center of Sunni learning, called the purported desecration “a great crime,” while Egypt’s mufti, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, called it “an unforgivable crime” and “aggression” on Islam’s “sacred values.” The Gulf Cooperation Council, a set of American allies, called for the “harshest punishment” so that “the dignity of Muslims” could be preserved. Officials in Gaza and Iran also waded in.
This weekend, Abdul Fatah Fayeq, the senior judicial figure in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province, read out a statement from 300 Muslim clerics stating that President Bush should hand the culprits over to an Islamic country for punishment or else “we will launch a jihad against America.”
Meanwhile, in the face of Pentagon denials, Newsweek has begun backtracking. Newsweek seemed to have had doubts about the report from the beginning, since they ran it not as a straight news story but as a squiblet in the “Periscope” section. Now, in the May 23 issue, editor Mark Whitaker admits that their sourcing was suspect and stated “we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst.” In the same issue, Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas is more forthright, asking “How did NEWSWEEK get its facts wrong?”
Equally disturbing is the fact that Newsweek reporters seemed to have little idea how explosive such a story would be. While noting that, to Muslims, desecrating the Koran “is especially heinous,” Thomas looks for explanations, including “extremist agitators,” of why protest and rioting spread throughout the world, and maintains that it was at Imram Khan’s press conference that “the spark was apparently lit.” He confesses that after “so many gruesome reports of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, the vehemence of feeling around this case came as something of a surprise.”
What planet do these people live on that they are surprised by something so entirely predictable? Anybody with a little knowledge could have told them it was likely that people would die as a result of the article. Remember Salman Rushdie?
The spark was lit not by Imram Khan but by Newsweek itself on May 9 when apparently none of its reporters or editors was aware of the effect such a story would have. There seems to have been nobody there that knew that death is the penalty for desecrating a Koran in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Egypt is milder, there one would be sentenced to several years in prison under Article 161 of the penal code for “publicly insulting Islam,” or perhaps Article 98, “inciting sectarian strife”; similar patterns are followed in more moderate Muslim countries.
In Pakistan, Article 295-B of the penal code calls for life imprisonment for desecrating the Koran or any extract from it. Last September, mentally handicapped Shahbaz Masih was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment, convicted of tearing up some leaflets that contained verses from the Koran. In 2003, the same judge sentenced Ranjha Masih (no relation) to life in prison for allegedly throwing a stone at a Muslim signboard with a Koranic verse on it during a bishop’s funeral procession. Dozens of other Pakistanis have met similar fates.
In all of these countries, the greatest danger is not from the courts, but from vigilantes and mobs. In Pakistan in 1997, Shantinagar, a Christian town of some 10,000 people, was burned to the ground after a man there was accused of tearing pages from a Koran. In the Netherlands last fall, the documentary producer Theo Van Gogh was butchered after he produced a documentary Submission featuring Koranic verses on women’s bodies.
Even if Newsweek publishes a full retraction, the damage is done. Much of the Muslim world will regard it merely as a cover-up and feel reconfirmed in the view that America is at war with Islam. It will undercut the U.S., including in Afghanistan and Iraq, far more than Abu Ghraib did. “We can understand torturing prisoners, no matter how repulsive” Newsweek quotes one Pakistani saying, “But insulting the Qur’an is like torturing all Muslims.”
It would be charitable to think that if Newsweek had known how explosive the story was it may have held off until it had more confirmation. If this is true, it is an indication that the media’s widespread failure to pay careful attention to the complexities of religion not only misleads us about domestic and international affairs but also gets people killed.
– Paul Marshall is senior fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom and editor of the just released Radical Islam’s Rules: the Worldwide Spread of Extreme Sharia Law.