In the May 9, 2005 issue of Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff ran a short piece about inmate abuse at Guantanamo prison. One sentence in that article indicated that U.S. interrogators at Gitmo had flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet to irritate detainees. According to Isikoff, the information came from an “internal military investigation.”
Within hours Imran Khan, an enemy of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and a respected cricket legend was reciting from the Newsweek article, claiming that the U.S. was desecrating the Koran. This outraged many Pakistanis and the news quickly spread along the Arab “street”. The news was particularly consequential in Afghanistan where fifteen people were killed in the resulting riots.
Newsweek has now retracted the story. Isikoff says that his source has “backed away” from his original account and that Newsweek could “no longer stand by” it. Administration officials were quick to blame the Newsweek article for sparking anti-American violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said, “The report had real consequences. People have lost their lives.”
The Whitehouse is wrong. Those who blame the liberal press are wrong. Radical Muslim extremists, not Newsweek, are responsible for this recent, tragic loss of life in the Arab world.
The report was bad journalism. The single sentence appearing in Newsweek was a big mistake and regrettable, but it did not cost a single life. The Koran is rightly considered by believers to be a holy book, as is the Bible and Vedic writings. These books represent holy ideas, but they are books. Books can be replaced. Only irrational extremism values bound pages, no matter how holy, over the life of man.
Such extremism is indicated by the comments of computer teacher Muhammad Archad during an interview with Newsweek immediately after the riots. Archad said, “We can understand torturing prisoners, no matter how repulsive, but insulting the Qur’an is like deliberating torturing all Muslims. This we cannot tolerate.” How ridiculous, how monstrous it is to say that human torture is preferred to the desecration of a book.
Newsweek’s mistake, as unfortunate as it was, is tolerable. Even if Newsweek was correct and someone did flush the Koran, a violent response is not justified. Twelfth-century attitudes like Archad’s are intolerable, inflammatory, and extreme. The responsibility for these barbaric, visceral, and deadly responses to a single sentence in a magazine fall squarely on Muslim extremists, who hold a near-monopoly on much of the unrest, violence, and injustice in our world.