Dozens of people have been killed in the violence that erupted after American personnel burned Qur’ans on a US air base in Afghanistan.
Activist and author Naomi Wolf provides another perspective, with a focus on the historical and cultural significance of burning a conquered people’s sacred texts.
NEW YORK – In the wake of the Koran-burning by troops at the United States’ Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, protests continue to escalate, and the death toll mounts. In the process, three US blind spots have become obvious.
One is that of the US media, whose coverage simply underscores – and amplifies – the stunning cluelessness that triggered the protests in the first place. Professional journalists are obliged to answer five questions: who, what, where, why, and how. But, reading reports from The Associated Press, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others, I searched exhaustively before I could form any picture of what had actually been done to the Korans in question. Not only did accounts conflict; none offered a clear notion of who had allegedly done what, let alone why or how.
Were Korans burned, as one US report had it, under the oversight of US military officials? Or were they brought by soldiers for incineration, as another version maintained, as part of a haul of “extremist literature” and prisoners’ personal communications, with Afghan workers alerting others at the base to the nature of the material?
These murky accounts – with no clear subjects or actions (The New York Times, incredibly, managed not to describe the burning at all) – reflect what happens when major news outlets appear simply to take dictation from the Pentagon.
The second US blind spot is the politicization of this terrible affront. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has called Obama’s apology a “surrender,” while another Republican contender, Rick Santorum, is offended that anyone is suggesting that the US should bear any “blame.”
This absence of perspective reveals the cultural ignorance that has turned recent US foreign interventions into political catastrophes. I, too, come from an Abrahamic religion, Judaism, which shares strong roots with Islam. In both faiths, sacred texts are treated as if they are, in a sense, living beings. Jews, too, give them “burials’ when they are too old to use, and treat them ritualistically while they are “alive,” using silver pointers to avoid profaning them with human hands, dressing them in velvet jackets, and kissing them when they fall to the ground.
Burning a conquered people’s sacred texts sends an unmistakable message: you can do anything to these people. As Heinrich Heine put it, referring to the Spanish Inquisition‘s burning of the Koran, “Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.” Jews understand that very well: from the Inquisition to Cossack massacres to Kristallnacht, the aggressors destroyed Torahs as a logical and well-understood precursor to destroying Jews.
The third blind spot is almost too painful to bear having to address – which, on a charitable interpretation, might explain why not one mainstream US media report has done so: the burnings were not carried out on some street in Kabul, but at Bagram. That is, Korans were burned at a US facility that meets the dictionary definition of a concentration camp.
In 2009, Spiegel Online ran a portrait gallery about Bagram titled “America’s Torture Chamber.” In “The Forgotten Guantánamo,” it reported that 600 people were being held at Bagram without charge. All were termed “unlawful enemy combatants,” allowing the US to claim that they have no right to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. A military prosecutor said that, compared to Bagram, Guantánamo Bay was “a nice hotel.”
Indeed, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, invariably described in the US as “the self-proclaimed chief architect of 9/11,” told the Red Cross that at Bagram he had been suspended by shackles and sexually assaulted: “I was made to lie on the floor. A tube was inserted into my anus and water poured inside.” Another prisoner, Raymond Azar, testified that ten FBI agents had abducted him, shown him photos of his family, and told him that if he didn’t “cooperate,” he would never see them again.
The BBC collated testimony in 2010 from nine prisoners confirming that human-rights abuses continued at Bagram. The prisoners independently described “a secret prison” inside the prison, called “the black hole.” Prisoners were still being subjected at the time to freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation, and “other abuses.” One testified that a US soldier had used a rifle to knock out a row of his teeth, and that he was forced to dance to music whenever he needed to use the bathroom.
Another investigation confirmed similar allegations in 2010, and last month the BBC reported that Bagram’s prison population had reached 3,000, while an Afghan-led investigation found still more allegations of ongoing torture, including freezing temperatures and sexual humiliations.
Of course, since the US military can detain anyone in Afghanistan, and hold him or her without charge in these conditions forever, the entire country lives under the shadow of torture at Bagram. The Koran burnings are a potent symbol of that systemic threat.
So, while Obama should continue to apologize for the Koran burnings, we must understand that Afghans’ rage is a response to an even deeper, rawer wound. Obama should also apologize for kidnapping Afghans; for holding them at Bagram without due process of law; for forcing them into cages, each reportedly holding up to 30 prisoners; for denying them Red Cross/Red Crescent visits; for illegally confiscating family letters; for torturing and sexually abusing them; and for casting a pall of fear over the country.
The Koran forbids that kind of injustice and cruelty. So does the Bible.
Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.