February 27, 2012

The Koran-burning incident: only a matter of time

I wasn't surprised to hear about the Afghan riots around alleged burning of Korans at Bagram. This incident, and the reaction to it, was inevitable, given the politics of Westerners handling that particular book.

We had a similar issue in Kandahar in late 2008. There had been an attempt to reach out to the Afghan people through the distribution by the military of Pashto-Arabic Korans. Very ornate, beautiful books. But Westerners couldn't be seen to handle the books, our Afghan advisors felt, so direct gifting was impossible. So we attempted to give them through the Afghan military, where I was an advisor. This was also problematic: the military didn't like getting Korans from westerners' hands, either, and they couldn't really give them out themselves, because they knew their defiling origin. So that was a non-starter. We also started to see returns of holy books previously given, as word spread that the words might somehow have been adulterated or bowdlerized by Westerners. It being, of course, impossible to disprove that particular negative, the whole Koran-gifting thing basically shut down.

This, though, created another problem: what to do with the books now? Neither holy nor unholy, they could not be disposed of in any rational manner. The Afghans would not take possession under any circumstances, nor would they give them back to our control (because they were, at least somewhat, still the word of God). This proved a very difficult issue to negotiate, and as I recall ended with basically everyone just agreeing to pretend they weren't there.

I have no doubt that the supply of burnable copies of the Koran at Bagram airbase ended up there in some similar fashion. This is not a goodwill gesture, it seems, that can ever, ever work. Furthermore, as the Western presence winds down and seacans are emptied and their contents disposed of rather than shipped home, one should expect similar such incidents in future.

UPDATE: Richard Minniter calls the discrimination of Korans both "novel and sincere." It's certainly not the former, and experience suggests the impossibility of convincing Afghans of the latter. The most likely result of any such initiative now would be another sea container full of potentially burnable Korans in Bagram.

Posted by BruceR at 09:16 AM