Culture wars: The burning of the Koran

February 24, 2012

U.S. President Barack Obama has apologised for the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran at a military base in Afghanistan and the top general in the country has ordered all coalition troops to undergo training in the proper handling of religious materials by March 3.

Quite apart from the question of how can you “inadvertently” burn books, the bigger issue is can soldiers be so blindly ignorant of the consequences of their action ? Is it because these were soldiers in the rear, insulated  in a huge base that  sometimes feels like a little America with its gymns, snack joints and the easy conviviality between men and women, a setting far removed from the hard-scrabble country outside ?

On the other hand, troops who have to step out of the wire or those directly in harm’s way in  their combat outposts, say for instance in Kunar in the east, would know instinctively the anger such desecration of the holy book would provoke.

This is not to say that the men on the frontlines of Afghanistan’s longest military entanglement have consistently exhibited exemplary behaviour. Only last month the top generals were again rushing to contain the damage after a video surfaced in which U.S. Marines deployed in southern Helmand province appeared to be urinating on Taliban corpses.

Eleven years into the war in Afghanistan, interspersed by the invasion of Iraq, you would expect the world’s most advanced and, according to some, the most moral force, to have picked up the most basic of do’s and don’ts while operating in a Muslim country.”The desecration of the a Quran to many Afghans is even more emotive than civilian casualties or disrespect towards dead bodies and there is more social pressure to react,” wrote Martine van Bijlert on the Afghanistan Analysts Network website.

It’s staggering actually that at one end you have some of the brightest minds in the U.S. military, very perceptive, very polite and sensitive to the beliefs and customs of people around them.  I once had an American officer telling me at that same base in Bagram how he would wolf down his sandwich in a corner or slip to his tent because his Afghan colleagues were fasting during the month of Ramzan and he didn’t want to be seen as impolite.

Of course every now and then you would also run into people who took particular delight in uncorking the soda water while their fasting Afghan colleagues endured the summer heat in silence. Or the soldier in Iraq who shot the Koran using it as target practice, prompting an apology from then President George W. Bush.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,  has suggested that the soldiers who were involved in the Koran burning may have been part of a new unit rotating into the region and may not have the same appreciation of the procedures that have been put in place. But then what about pre-deployment training ? Aren’t the troops given lessons in cultural awareness before coming to the theatre ?

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force says officers believe that the incident was an error and did not reflect inadequate cultural and religious sensitivity training for the soldiers. There’s a new course up right now, though, in which soldiers are learning how to handle religious material.

Some people, while recognising the depth of the Afghan anger, say they would like the people to show the same degree of outrage when the Taliban commit atrocities such as bombing civilians and burning girls schools as they did earlier,  or when the state fails them miserably as in a family losing its eighth child because of cold and hunger.

But then are you holding the U.S. army to the same standards as the Taliban ?  The two are in talks and if the Taliban are to come overground they have to adhere to some standards of human behaviour and that might be part of the problem. But the Afghans may well ask the same question of the Americans as they negotiate a presence beyond the planned troop pullout by the end of 2014.  The two sides are wrangling over the strategic partnership agreement with President Hamid Karzai’s administration insisting on an end to night raids and taking over control of detainees including the Parwan facility at Bagram where the books were burnt.

The Afghans may yet harden their stance, given the rage that America’s latest action has provoked, complicating the year-long negotiations further.  Eventually, the riots will stop, but the memory that foreign troops disrespected the holy book will not go away so easily.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

People have to be careful and show respect to others’ religious sentiments. However, I am surprised to see such an outrage for a book burning in a country where they blasted off Buddhist statues in Bamian valley without caring for the sentiments of Buddhists worldwide. Islam prohibits idol worship. Giving a book such critical importance is in a way, idolatry as well. Respecting others’ religions is important for Muslims as well, while demanding the same violently from others. Or is this outrage an expression of something else that is a manifestation of underlying anger? Small incidents can trigger unexpected and large scale reactions of this kind as well.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

The soldiers responsible for burning the muslim holy book is no different from what a lunatic third class Florida did in the USA. Burning of religious books is not a crime in the lawful country of the USA! It is in Europe!

To do this act in a muslim country is the desperation which the Yanks are now facing. A vietnam type withdrawl or the withdrawl with drawned faces under the protection and support of Pakistan military. When is the Amir of Afghanistan or the supreme commander of the talibans is going to spread the word for the all out assault on foreign troops?
Sanjeev, time and again I have said that he Pashtuns do not negotiate with foreigners! Your info from the yanks is a spin not a reality. The Talibans plan to set up their foreign office in the Gulf states, forign embassys or consulates will no longer be allowed within Afghanistan. The new Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the 21st century will be much different than the country we have seen before. A lot of cleansing-up will be required in the Bagram base.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

Quran is the word of Allah and most sacred Book, by definition Christians are also people of the book. But the soldiers who did this coward act of burning Quran have no religion at all. this shameful act should be condemned, one more reason why the US needs to loose this war.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

These soldiers who burned a book were a bunch of young people with little exposure to the world. I’m appalled at any book being burned, but the Islamic response is even more appalling. Get over yourselves and your hurt feelings. If Allah is offended, he’ll take care of it. As one reader commented, worshipping a book is idolatry.

Posted by Kahina | Report as abusive

When I see the continued protest of Afghans throughout Afghanistan and over the border in Pakistan and then learn about the loss of life and the confirmed deaths of senior American officers in the close quaters of the secured interior ministry, i get the impression that the Talibans mean to make a holy city from today’s Kabul, no longer allowing the presence of non muslims in the capital. It reminds of the UK Ambassador Mr Cavagnari who lost his life in similar flare up, ordered as a matter of fact by the Amir of Afghanistan.

Rex Minor

PS I do not recall Russian Officers loss of life in Kabul? Sanjeev should know it.

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

I have always argued that Afghan’s are a traditionally conservative agrarian Muslim society, no one can deny the facts on ground. Also, no attempt should be made to alter the social fabric of Afghan people, otherwise they will resist it. And the fallout of this particular incident shows us one most important thing, now the Afghans hate the foreign forces more than ever. It looks as though any hopes of an honourable face saving exit for US out of this quagmire is no more possible.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

away with the Koran; the lord is Lord all others away.we are the boss

Posted by dre777 | Report as abusive

Afghans do not hate any one, but are usualy allergic to foreigners. They are usualy cold blooded and treacherous, but bloody good fighters, this is how the Brits identified them after the massacre of the british contingent during the Afghan war.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

To say that Afghans hate no one reveals sheer ignorance of Islam. Muslims are commanded to hate non-Muslims, called kafirs, a word so vile that Arabs say it cannot be translated into a civilized language. Many verses in the Koran command hatred of kafirs.

Islam has made no positive contribution to mankind, least of all to Muslimas but even to most Muslim barrows as well.

When you ape the words and deeds of a criminal psychopath, it should be no surprise that you are barbaric and impoverished.

Posted by GuyMacher | Report as abusive

So now we have a guy who is inerpreting Quraan to us. Kaffir is the name for those people and tribes which were pagans and non believers, this identity was neither vile nor demeaning the people. The anglo saxon started calling them ‘INFIDEL’ to classify non believers. The identity of Kaffir or infidel is given to non believers, and is not meant for either christians or jews, who are regarded the followers of holy scriptures. Now we have more modern and uptodate names of Atheists, agnostics and may be some others. This info is not available to the non english speaking world. Therefore they continue to call them as Kaffirs and Infidels in English.

You have any problems? We have seen hitler youth burning books of jewish writers or books about the jewish people. No body intervened and put a stop to it and this was followed by millions of jews being killed murdered in concentration camps. I know that burning of Quraan is not a crime in the USA, the home of zionsts, but in Europe it is forbidden, and in the muslim world it is signal that they are under attack by the invaders on account of their eligion.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

Afghans are cold booded, treachorous, but do not hate any one. Infact if they like you and then discover that you are going to leave them. They are going to bury you alive, simply to keep you.

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive