Thursday, March 15, 2012

Moral outrage: Burning of the Quran versus free speech

by Salman Hameed

The US presence in Afghanistan is becoming an embarrassment with every passing day. I was already planning on writing about the outrage over the burning of the Quran when we heard about the massacre of 16 people, including 9 children, by a US soldier. The reaction to Qur'an burning was much more severe than the latter incident. How do we make sense of that?

I think a perfect starting point is something that biologist Jerry Coyne wrote last month. He had a post about the Qur'an burning incident, titled Eight dead because four Qur'ans burned. He ended his post by stating "It's just pieces of paper". This is an interesting comment and it got me thinking about how a society attributes value to things or actions. I actually agree that human lives should be paramount and not be wasted for any such offense (and that is why it was and still is lunacy when people threaten Salman Rushdie). But that doesn't mean that "it's just pieces of paper". It might be for Coyne - but Afghans (and other Muslims) value the Qur'an differently. If the US forces are in Afghanistan - then they should respect the culture they are in. Such a respect for other cultures is also part of liberal thinking. However, this appreciation of "value"becomes even more important when there is an asymmetric power relation, and it is the powerful that is accused of violating the local customs. The US forces are inAfghanistan - and they have to learn and respect the local culture.

But let me bring up two other cases:
1) Freedom of speech and the Danish cartoon controversy: Here, I the Muslims over-reached and showed insensitivity to the local customs. The issue of freedom of expression is not without problems, but it is an important one. Muslims threatening cartoonists for drawing pictures of prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is equally insensitive to the local values. If one doesn't want to see the pictures and is offended by them - don't see them. But one cannot enforce his/her values on to the local Europeans (or on to the South Park creators in the US) simply because one is offended by them.

We are seeing more and more of these clashes because different value systems are colliding due to global connectivity - and we have to understand and appreciate the different viewpoints.

2) The destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas: Talking about values, how do we think about the Bamiyan statues statues destroyed by the Taliban? Of course, the destruction of the 2000 year old statues by the Taliban was insane. But then the Taliban almost used the same logic as Coyne's: These are just pieces of rock, they are located in their territory, and they didn't like them. What is the big deal? But of course, this is a big deal. We associate value to them and deem them important for historical and cultural perspectives. Similarly, we can argue for the immense value of Mona Lisa or the pyramids of Giza, etc.

But of course, there is a balancing part. I don't think any of this is meant to be a defense of any loss of lives or any form of cultural practice. I do think that some of the cultural customs of Taliban related to women are deeply problematic (the same is true for Saudi Arabia). These are not easy issues and require some nuance. Calling Qur'an "It is just pieces of paper"misses the point.

Similarly, here is an article from NYT that talks about the reaction over Qur'an burning versus the massacre. It at least makes an effort to understand cultural values:    

The mullah was astounded and a little angered to be asked why the accidental burning of Korans last month could provoke violence nationwide, while an intentional mass murder that included nine children last Sunday did not.
“How can you compare the dishonoring of the Holy Koran with the martyrdom of innocent civilians?” said an incredulous Mullah Khaliq Dad, a member of the council of religious leaders who investigated the Koran burnings. “The whole goal of our life is religion.”
That many Americans are just as surprised that what appears to be the massacre of 16 people at the hands of an American soldier has not led to mass protests or revenge killings speaks volumes about a fundamental disconnect with their Afghan partners, one that has undermined a longstanding objective to win the hearts and minds of the population. After more than 10 years, many deaths and billions of dollars invested, Americans still fail to grasp the Afghans’ basic values. Faith is paramount and a death can be compensated with blood money.
“To Muslims, and especially to Afghans, religion is much higher a concern than civilian or human casualties,” said Hafez Abdul Qayoom, a member of Afghanistan’s highest clerical body, the Ulema Council. “When something happens to their religion, they are much more sensitive and have much stronger reaction to it.”
Mullah Qayoom is surprised that anyone is surprised.
“Humans were sent here to worship and protect religion,” he said. “That is what the purpose of a Muslim’s life is.”
Also, Afghans were very much aware that burning a Koran under American law normally would not be a crime, any more than burning a Bible would be — so those responsible were not going to suffer anything that Afghans would view as appropriate punishment.
In the case of murder, the military does have capital punishment, at least in theory — though no American soldier has ever been sentenced to death for acts committed in Afghanistan, including murders.
“In your laws there is the death penalty, so we are hopeful,” Mullah Qayoom said. “With the Koran burning, your people do not even respect your own books, so in the end they will say ‘sorry’ and the person will be released.”
That Afghans find Koran desecration more distressing does not mean they have been indifferent to the murders, particularly of the children. By now, any Afghan with a computer has seen the victims’ cherubic but lifeless visages on Facebook, and the images have been passed around on cellphones. Wrapped in blankets, some look as if they had just fallen asleep — the coverings hide gaping forehead wounds. A toddler in a blood-stained pinafore looks alive at first glance.


Anonymous said...

One does not simply beg respect. It has to be earned.

Salman Hameed said...

Begging respect from whom? The colonial powers? The record of colonial cultural exchanges isn't exactly glowing. So - I'm not writing from the Afghan side. I'm writing from the US and it is our own values of respecting other cultures that we have to protect.

Anonymous said...

I am agreeing with you in fact. Most Muslims think they deserve respect by default. This is not how the world goes and they have to understand it...the sooner the better.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, since Muslims hardly ever (if at all) say evil of the holy figures of other religions, like Jesus, Mary, Buddha, Moses, etc (Bamiyan buddha statues were not destroyed because of these being Budhha but being statues, an abhorrent act indeed, but if it was a statue of, say, Mohamed, they would have destroyed it anyways). They never desecrate or burn Bible or Torah or any Hindu scripture for example. So somehow they expect the same from the world in general. But what they fail to understand is that in a world of free speech, there is no such thing as mutual respect.

SoPathetic said...

Sure the Quran has vile stuff in there, just like other holy books but burning the Quran or any other holy books won't make them go away so it's idiotic and pointless.

From what I read these Qurans were burned in private, and Taliban had written messages in them.

The Muslims who were getting angered, violent, and protesting about something like this were also pretty idiotic as well just like the Muslims getting angered over the Danish cartoons. Whatever happened to "religion of peace"?

SoPathetic said...

Take a look at this article from two days ago A Pakistani Muslim, Naseem Ahmed, was jailed for life, simply because he burned a Quran. And that guy is a father of three. He burned books out of anger and unknowingly burned a Quran, yet Pakistan gave him life in prison for such a stupid thing. Even his mother testified against him.

Robot said...

But it IS just a piece of paper.

"They're just pieces of rock" is not of the same order, because the statues were unique pieces, whereas identical copies of the Koran can be easily printed again. If we were talking about ancient Koran manuscripts, your example would have been correct.

Also, as SoPathetic stated, there were good reasons for destroying those Korans.

"The reaction to Qur'an burning was much more severe than the latter incident.
How do we make sense of that?"

Is nonsense a form of sense?
If so, then I can, for those uneducated barbarian zealots take nonsense for reality.

Salman Hameed said...

"But it IS just a piece of paper.

"They're just pieces of rock" is not of the same order, because the statues were unique pieces, whereas identical copies of the Koran can be easily printed again. If we were talking about ancient Koran manuscripts, your example would have been correct."

Robot - now we are getting somewhere. This is an interesting issue and the crux of the matter. Indeed, you (and I) find value in ancient manuscripts. The fascination with old objects/buildings etc is actually relatively recent - and after the development of archaeology and other historically oriented fields that deal with materials. But - as it has been in the past - and can be argued, that "old" things can and should be replaced by something new. Tear down the old building - and build a new one. So we - as a group of people - come up with a shared value.

Now - what to do when someone else attaches a different value than yours? This is the crux of the matter. For you - the Qur'an can printed again. But for the Afghans - once it is printed - it has to be treated with respect. Don't you think that - as an educated persons - when visiting Afghanistan, one ought to understand and respect their "values"?

And as far as reasons for Qur'an burning - those are actually irrelevant for this discussion. I was commenting on the point" it is just pieces of paper". But if you do want to know, the US investigative report found that the Qur'ans were burnt in front of Afghan security personnels. In addition, they burnt numerous books, including novels. The reason: they suspected that there was some communication. However, they didn't have enough translators to go through these, so they decided to burn a lot of them without actually reading them. Interestingly, this brings up an interesting question of "freedom of speech" - one of the values that US wants to promote. Should they be burning books at all? Was there an investigation on what kind of messages are permissible and what aren't? Here is a fantastic opinion piece on the matter of this book-burning.

By understanding and appreciating other cultures, we may be able to strengthen our own values here at home.

Gary said...

I am probably a bit late to contribute to this discussion but here's my penny's worth anyway.

Firstly the Danish cartoons controversy was a bit more complex than Muslims over-reacting to a bunch of cartoons. The paper had previously cancelled a similarly derogatory series of cartoons on the Prophet Jesus to avoid offending the Christian majority The fact that Muslims would also be offended by the cartoons probably didn't occur to them. Requests from Danish Muslims for the government to intervene were unheeded. The government cited freedom of speech but it was beholden at the time to a minority right wing party with an extreme anti-Muslim agenda. More a case of asymmetric power relations like the US behaviour in Afghanistan than a defence of freedom of speech.

As for the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban That was also offensive as is their attitude towards basic human rights, particularly those of women.

Jerry Coyne is wrong about the Qur'an just being pieces of paper. To Muslims it is far more than that but on a more universal level serious questions should be raised about the deliberate burning of books. Hitler and his acolytes were masters at burning books and to many these were more than mere pieces of paper.

Personally I am more troubled by the massacre of 16 Afghani civilians by a US soldier. Putting aside the love of guns and the obscenely high murder rate, (including massacres) in the US, this sort of thing is inevitable when you give a man a gun and send him repeatedly into a battle zone where the primal instinct is to kill or be killed. By all accounts this man had done 3 tours of duty in Iraq, had been seriously wounded and had seen fellow soldiers killed. He was also told that he would not be deployed to Afghanistan. The incident itself happened after he and another solider were wounded by a roadside bomb. I know from personal experience it is difficult to retain any degree of sanity in conditions like that.

I have sympathy for the Afghan victims and their families and some degree of sympathy for the soldier and his family. He will face some form of justice even though it will probably be token. What will not happen is that those who were ultimately responsible for putting him in that position will never be held accountable for their crimes. That is the biggest concern of all.

Robot from Rotterdam said...


I am able to understand, but I will not appreciate.
They are wrong.
Their values are horrible and realizing that, strengthens my own values.

However, I fully agree with you that if you want to have things done in Afghanistan, then you will have to take in account you're in a country with a lot of uneducated barbaric zealots, so indeed you should be aware of their "sensibilities".

Which makes me wonder, as I did before, what are we doing there?!

I wish we could help the girls to go to school, together with boys, but how?
It is saddening and depressing.

Unknown said...

salman.. bhai.. great work.. keep it up.. i am very happy to visit your blog.

Powered by Blogger.