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.

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