Toward the end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, when music had already been banned and women excluded from Islamic rituals by being immured in their homes, and when new non-Quranic punishments—such as being buried alive—had been promulgated for homosexuals, an arcane point arose among the fierce Islamists who ran the place: Should paper bags also be haram, or forbidden? The point was an exquisitely delicate one. It was known that such bags were made from recycled paper. It had been alleged that old and torn copies of the Quran had been thrown, or must have been thrown, somewhere and sometime, into the vats of pulp. Was there, therefore, not a real risk that each paper bag might contain a profaned fragment of the divine word? The thought of toilet paper being made in this manner may have been too obscene even to consider, but in the event, paper bags were banned, just as most reading material had already been.
It's essential that we understand the deep irrationality that underlies all faith and that can take these fetishistic forms. That great religion expert Kenneth Woodward, who used to write with extreme lenience on such subjects as miracles (for Newsweek, as it happens), has now written a solemn article for the Wall Street Journal saying that Muslims revere the Quran, or "recitation," much, much more than Christians revere the Bible. The Bible is only a first draft of God's will, set down by mere mortals, whereas the Quran is the unmediated word of God himself. No wonder, then, that pious Muslims will hear of a Newsweek capsule story, assume it to be infallible, and immediately begin to kill and burn. What could be more understandable?
Well, first, most Muslims did not do any such thing, and those who did should not be indulged in the Wall Street Journal. Second, why are we to assume that God speaks only Arabic? Third, are these not the same crowds who believed that all the Jews were ordered to leave the World Trade Center just in time? The truth or otherwise of the story has precious little to do with it. If it had not been this "provocation," it would have been another (such as the claim that the United States sets off the car bombs in Baghdad to give itself an excuse to stick around).
For whatever it's worth, I know and admire both John Barry and Michael Isikoff, and I can quite imagine that—based on what they had already learned about the gruesome and illegal goings-on at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib—they found it more than plausible that the toilet incident, or something like it, had actually occurred. A second allegation, that a whole pile of Qurans had been stepped upon at Guantanamo, is equally credible. But mere objectivity requires us to note that this is partly because every prisoner is given a Quran, and that thus there are a lot of them lying around, and that none of this "scandal" would ever have occurred if the prison authorities were not at least attempting to respect Islamic codes. Do Christian and Jewish prisoners in Muslim states receive Bibles and Talmuds? Do secular detainees in Pakistan petition with success to be given Thomas Paine's Age of Reason? Isikoff told me recently that he'd been out to see the trial of a madrasah student in Virginia who was accused of terrorist recruitment and propaganda, and he had been somewhat shocked at the virulence of the anti-Jewish teachings on offer at that school. The school is almost certainly paid for by Saudi money. A Wahhabist version of the Quran, containing distortions of the original and calling for war against "unbelievers" of all sorts, is now handed out by imams in our very own prison system! Do we demand in return that Saudi Arabia allow churches and synagogues and free-thought centers on soil where the smallest heresy is punishable by death? No, we do not. Instead, we saturate ourselves in masochism and invent the silly, shallow term "Quran abuse."
This Western cringe, in the face of the intolerance of others, is best corrected by serious Muslims. You idiots, said the elected president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai (who is, of course, the real target of the fanatical rioters): You burned down the library in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, which contained, among other treasures, 200 Qurans. You misguided fools, says Grand Ayatollah Sistani (one of whose chief assistants was murdered in cold blood last week by a Salafist assassin): Even if you kill me, I forgive you in advance. This dignity and bearing and patience—and not hysterical self-pity and frenzy—is the Muslim style that is worth defending and explaining, and it is also the side on which we have ranged ourselves. Nothing to apologize for in that.
Many years ago, in response to a humor column written by Auberon Waugh (son of Evelyn) in the London Times, an Islamist mob got hold of the idea that a conspiracy was being hatched against the prophet. The British Council library in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, was burned down as a result. In 1989, having just gone back on his divinely inspired word and signed a peace treaty with Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini was looking for a populist issue and found it in the publication of a novel that he had not read. Copies of The Satanic Verses were thereupon burned all over the world, and its author burned in effigy and made the target of fanatical death squads, who slew or maimed several of his translators and publishers. Over the last week, the flag of the United States of America has been cheerfully incinerated by grinning crowds in several cities.
Now, everything in me is revolted by the burning of books, let alone the attempt to murder writers, and I claim the right to feel this at least as strongly as any illiterate fanatic may choose to feel about a story in Newsweek. Some of us can be offended at insults to our culture, and we, too, possess unalterable convictions and principles. Many people take the same view of the desecration of Old Glory. But we would never dream of venting ourselves in random assaults on mosques or Muslims, and if anyone on our soil did dare to commit such atrocities, I hope and believe that they would not receive moist and sympathetic treatment in the pages of the American press.