Obama’s apology and the ashes of the Holy Quran

Published: March 2, 2012

Sadly, it was not an isolated incident, and it could very well happen again. PHOTO: REUTERS

Last week, as the horrible news spread that US military officials had incinerated copies of the Holy Quran at Bagram airbase, American military and civilian leaders quickly said they were sorry.

NATO commander General John Allen and US President Barack Obama both apologized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. A top US defense official, Peter Lavoy, even appeared at a Washington DC area mosque to offer his apologies to worshippers during Friday prayers.

Yet Washington also went beyond apologies. Allen announced an investigation into the affair, and the military pledged new training for its personnel.

“These actions do not represent the views of the US military,” insisted defense secretary Leon Panetta.

Underlying this all is an implicit message: This was an isolated incident, and we will ensure it never happens again. Sadly, it was not an isolated incident, and it could very well happen again.

One need not think long to recall other desecrations and brutalities committed by the US military in recent years. Just weeks ago, a video surfaced of American soldiers urinating on dead Taliban soldiers. In 2010, revelations emerged, that a group of servicemen had executed random Afghan civilians, posed for photographs with the corpses, and then severed body parts to keep as trophies. Back in 2005, the Red Cross alleged that American personnel, at the Guantanamo naval base, had ‘disrespected copies of the Quran’ (though US media later retracted reports that actual desecrations had occurred, including the flushing of a Holy Quran down a toilet).  Meanwhile, Abu Ghraib and Haditha have become synonymous with US military misdeeds in Iraq.

This may not be a long list, but it is a list that has no business existing at all, and yet it may accumulate a few more iniquitous items. Consider the present plight of American soldiers. In a nation without a draft or any sort of compulsory military service, those deployed constitute a tiny minority of the US population. With so few personnel to serve America’s many military needs, repeated duty tours are the norm, leading to taxed, exhausted soldiers. In Afghanistan, they find themselves under immense pressure to attain results, with the clock ticking down to the withdrawal of combat forces by 2014. Such strain is compounded by the shifting US strategy in Afghanistan, which is now concentrating combat operations in the eastern portions of the country, where the insurgency is at its strongest.

Militaries often harbor a few sadists in their ranks (think of US Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, ringleader of the aforementioned ‘kill team’ that mutilated Afghan corpses). Yet with US military resources stretched thin and personnel stressed, even an upright and law-abiding soldier could crack. Or, as was seemingly the case last week in Bagram, overwhelmed or improperly tasked personnel could make an administrative mistake, ‘religious materials were unintentionally mishandled’, according to a White House spokesman, with reprehensible results.

Then there is the issue of prejudice. It is folly to accuse the US military of being an anti-Muslim institution; just as it is wrong to allege that America is an anti-Muslim nation (I noted last year that the FBI’s hate crimes statistics report significantly fewer incidents of anti-Islamic bias then those against Jews, African-Americans, and homosexuals). Yet in America, anti-Muslim prejudice frequently flares. Just the other day, the New York Post sparked an uproar by publishing a cartoon depicting Muslims as duplicitous terrorists.

Ever since President Harry Truman integrated the US armed forces in 1948, many have lauded the institution as a symbol of tolerance — a perception strengthened by last year’s decision to repeal the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy involving gay soldiers. Yet the tragic case of Danny Chen , a Chinese-American, allegedly driven to suicide last October, by repeated racial slurs perpetrated by his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan, demonstrates that the military is not immune to prejudice. Predictably, some Muslim-American troops have claimed harassment about their religious beliefs, and especially after the deadly shooting spree waged by Nidal Hasan, a Muslim-American military psychiatrist at Fort Hood in Texas.

To its credit, the US military typically responds promptly to cases of wrongdoing with investigations and legal proceedings. And given the unrelenting outrage manifested by Afghans following the Quran burnings, violence has killed more than two dozen Afghans and several Americans, and the affair has blown the Kabul-Washington trust deficit wide open; the Pentagon will surely take extra steps to ensure that no Quran is ever again desecrated under its auspices.

Still, the prospect of further atrocities remains.

Being the world’s sole superpower involves numerous costs. These include overstretch, that can cause soldiers to crack or to make mistakes of great magnitude, and the exportation of prejudices from home onto foreign lands and battlefields bearing the US military footprint.


Michael Kugelman

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He tweets @MichaelKugelman (twitter.com/MichaelKugelman)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • hx

    you do it
    you say its not american policy
    you apologize

    use your brains. or even that is not an american policy? =DRecommend

  • Zafir Hafeez

    americans can never justify their mistakes. Prejudice is instigated by them. America should not need to poke its nose in the matter south asian insurgency, if american military is of upright character they never commit such acts even being deployed in such hostile condition.
    Your support can never get our sympathy for them they would remain hatred for us. Recommend

  • Mj

    Respect is not demanded, it is earned. Imagine if followers of Hinduism started rioting anytime a cow was butchered, not just in India, but anywhere in the world. Would such an action lead to more respect for the followers? I think not. I can understand how an alleged disrespect of a supposedly holy book may offend the faithful, but there are many ways of protesting peacefully to make your point heard – regardless of merit it may or may not have.Recommend

  • Junaid

    An apology is not enough, you need to understand that its not just a book. it is the Holy Quran and muslims had the highest respect for it.Recommend

  • mohammad Iqbal

    well written piece. thanksRecommend

  • Muslim

    A desperate attempt to cover up the atrocities of the American soldiers under the thin excuse of being stressed. No one invited then to Afghanistan or Iraq. If they are stressed, why dont they go back home? The afghans and Iraqis (and Pakistanis) will only be too pleased to get rid of foreign invaders.

    If America really wants to secure itself. it should secure its borders. But they have no right to invade muslim countries and kill muslim civilians living in their own country. One more interesting fact to note is that all the countries America has invaded are muslim countries. is this not sufficient evidence of a US state anti Islam policy? Now who is the killer and who is the victim?Recommend

  • azhar88

    thry have done it before and will do it again cuz they are kaafirs, but what about us muslims. do we really respect the quran? do we really listen to what god says in his book. if we did listen to His words then we would not be in such a state God willing.Recommend

  • BlackJack

    Will someone explain to me what the end objective is in organizing these protests – and pls don’t tell me that it is a natural outpouring of grief and has no instigators. No one can justify the disrespect shown to any holy book – and I agree, your feelings were hurt and it wasn’t your fault. The people in charge need to apologize – they have (and not by some lowly flunky but the President of the United States). Action needs to taken – they will be. Now what do you want? Will killing a bunch of ignorant people add to the dignity of the Quran? Or do you imagine that your anti-social behavior today will reduce the likelihood of such actions in the future? Holding society to ransom through violent protest has become acceptable, nay, the norm in Islamic societies. And to top it all, an unnecessarily inflammatory article to whip up existing rampant anti-Americanism.Recommend

  • anon

    dear world, we are america. we slap you on the face and we are sorry about it. then we kick your nuts and we severely apologize again…don’t worry our next punch will also be followed by an official apology and investigation.

    THANK YOURecommend

  • Marium

    Reply to MJ

    Honestly with no disrespect to the “”supposedly( borrowed from your kind interpretation of our Holy Book) hindu ideals the analogy behind slaughtering a cow and burning a Holy Book escapes my mind. Cows are slaughtered all across the world not as a symbol of disrespect to the Hindus in any way but as a product on the Food chain.

    Disrespecting religious ideals just as an act of frustration or malice is not justified in any law of the world. I am sure that even children in Kindergarten , irrespective of religion, are taught to respect books Holy or not ,

    I do however agree with you that there are better ways of making our voices heard and we in general should resort to them in the future. Recommend

  • Patricia S. Jackson

    “Furor over the burnings fueled a string of protests and attacks that has left at least 39 people dead, including four American soldiers, and hundreds more wounded.” Who’s apologizing for these crimes? Can the burning of books even be compared to murder?

    In August, ten members of an eye-care team from the Christian International assistance mission were murdered (by Muslims) in Afghanistan’s northern mountains.

    In December 2010, Muslim extremists attacked an Orthodox Coptic Church in Upper Egypt during Christmas midnight Mass and murdered nine.

    azhar88 is right, if muslims were really listening to the word of God, they would not be murdering their fellow man.Recommend

  • A Friend

    Why is there no discussion of the original reason for setting these qurans aside in the first place? They were already desecrated by Taliban prisoners who wrote propaganda in them to be spread within the prisons. Isn’t this even a worse act of desecration because it was intentional? Why is this not discussed at all? Why was that OK?Recommend

  • A Friend


    A flaw in your thinking is that a group of Muslims under the direction of bin Laden hijacked airplanes and attacked the United States killing over 3000 people. If that had not happened there would be no US soldiers in Afghanistan and the Taliban would still be enacting their rein of Quran-Pashtun inspired holy terror on the people living there. They may be back in a few years and you can rejoice at the bloodletting which will be sure to follow. Recommend

  • Hassam

    The problem is that even when an inquiry takes place, the perpetrators of such acts get off very lightly. Take the case of the US marine who ordered indiscriminate killings of 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/25/us-marine-haditha-idUSTRE80M1U620120125

    The pressures on US soldiers is undoubtedly there, but to condone reckless and offensive behavior doesn’t help, however much they distance themselves publicly. Recommend

  • Parvez

    Liked your explanation of the situation and the process behind such incidents.
    You very rightly say that America remains the sole superpower with much responsibility.
    With global ambitions perceived as being hegemonic at best, the American government will take incidents like this in their stride. Make the right noises and proceed on with their objective. Isn’t that what superpowers do ?? There possibly is another way to achieve the same objectives but until that reality comes around, this is how it will play out. Recommend

  • YeaRight

    This is once again another lemme-explain-yall-America’s-misunderstood actions. It’s funny how you are defending FBI against charges of Anti-Muslim bias, but at the same time conveniently leaving out how the FBI routinely showed trainee officers some of the most offensive anti-muslim material, as part of their cultural training program. This has been a huge issue in the US, with alot of civil liberties have taken up and lodged a protest against.
    Not just that, recently there have been a series of reports on how FBI planted covert agents on campuses and within NYPD to carry out surveillance specifically on Muslims, Muslim worship areas, and Muslim students on campuses. The NYPD surveillance reports were shared with the FBI and they even recorded details such as the number of time a student would pray. I mean how obviously anti Muslim is that??? Commissioner Kelly has been under alot of fire for the anti-Muslim propaganda video that had been shown to his trainees WITH his knowledge and you think there is no Anti Muslim bias?
    You haven’t even address these two widely reported issues in the US media, which makes me wonder if you are once defending the establishment for the sake of defending them. We Pakistanis are alot more savvy then that, we read the news beyond and outside Pakistan, and are capable of differentiating between what is being said, and what is ACTUALLY happening on ground.
    This is the lesson you too should learn from the Afghan incident. That actions speak louder than words, what is happening in Afghanistan is not just a matter of an accident, it is actually linked to the extreme Anti Muslim hyperbolic hysteria that is whipped up on your tv channels, media and even politicians who keep scaremongering their voters about Muslim Obama. When you dont keep a check and balance on such misinformation, then at some point grave incidents like this happen on the ground (inadvertently and/or deliberately) which results in a heavy price on both sidesRecommend

  • Confused

    It’s a “War”. How can you respect anything when you are supposed to be at war with their ideologies? The US military sees no problem because they cannot empathize with anyone. Why? Well, once again, they are at WAR.
    You want to be sincere in your apologies? Stop fighting, and Realize what you’re trying to fight against (and let me know when you do). Until then, it is just meaningless. And realizing is hard.
    That is why nobody truly gives a damn about the Afghan civilians, because to them they’re all just the same worthless, expendable beings.
    “Oh, did we step out of line? no worries, here’s a pity phrase for it”. Disgusting.Recommend

  • Babur Chughtai

    Michael, good explanation. You did a better job than the State Dept. But here’s an article that destroys all your good work: America, Not NATO, Is Officially Anti-Muslim, see http://bit.ly/xSyp8a Recommend

  • Zaid Hamid.

    Americans saved millions of muslims in Bosnia , when they intervened there and stopped a genocide there. How many mislims thanked USA for this?

    Now you crib as few qurans are burnt, The real reason for this burning was- these qurans were being used by prisners to write secret codes and ensure covert operations in prisons. Can quran be used for these purposes????Recommend

  • http://2reachout.wordpress.com ROTTL

    the american forces did what they had to.and it is now done. th point remains what should the Muslims do?secular or liberal or fundamentalist, we are all Muslims and the Holy Books (in plural) are sacred to us if not to the non-muslims anymore.

    Here is an article that attempts to find the reason behind whythe US forces did this and why they were allowed to in the first place.

    it also shows what must be done by Muslims to avert such an incident, and similar incidents in future.

    may i request the moderator to kindly share the link. regards.Recommend

  • http://www.scribd.com/asifameer Asif

    I was informed that the military found prisoners using the reading material, including the Holy Quran, to pass messages around. To avoid that, they started burning them and bring in new material. I can understand burning of Motor Trend Magazine and Business week or Readers Digest. But it would be wise for the Military to assign a Muslim Chapel to resolve the proper removal of the Holy Quran from the circulation. Recommend

  • khizra raza

    whatever with their apologies cx they always do it again and againRecommend

  • Red

    Muslims need to learn right from wrong and to learn degrees of wrong. While disrespecting a religion is wrong, taking someone’s life is the worst sin of all, it is completely unpardonable. Also, please remember that Muslims also burn Qurans when they are unusable. It’s not that big a deal unless you turn it into one.Recommend

  • agnostic

    I was under the impression that one of the right ways to dispose of old worn out Quran is burning them. If it is so then what is the fuss all about?Recommend

  • http://India vasan

    There are so many muslims in Pakistan and the world who do not heed the message in Quran. Isnt it blasphemy?. I cant understand that burning a piece of paper will create so much fuss. By stopping this burning, are u going to remove the hatred in the minds of the American soldiers about Quran or Muslims which has prompted him do this, possibly. If he has done it to simply antagonize the muslims, then u people fell for the bait. What a colossal loss of men and materials in the riots that follow. Recommend

  • Hassam

    US burns copies of the Quran

    Afganis kill local police officers, innocent people and damage their own property. Not a single american soldiers gets harmed.


  • Michael Kugelman

    With all due respect @YeaRight — did you actually read this article? It is about the U.S. military, not the FBI. The developments you mention are indeed very disturbing and suggest anti-Muslim tendencies within the FBI, but that’s for another article. All I say here about the FBI is that its stats on hate crimes show that anti-Muslim incidents in the U.S. are not very common relative to those against other minority groups. So, I was not ignoring anything, given the parameters of the piece. Thanks for the feedback.Recommend

  • Ahsan Nisar

    It has become axiomatic to say that 9/11 changed the world and transformed the United States of America in a manner that no one could have conceived, certainly not its founding fathers. What has emerged from the ashes of the Twin Towers is an even more pugnacious and war-like society. In the backdrop of America’s reaction to the tragedy of 9/11, one question comes to mind: Why is the world’s most powerful and richest country so consumed by fear?

    The recent Quran burning in Bagram has inflamed the entire Muslim world and may fuel acts of terrorism. Not only does the burning of the holy text reflects the darkest days of medieval Europe and Nazi Germany, but it is hard to think of anything more un-American, by the definition of the Founding Fathers themselves. John Adams showed the utmost respect for Islam naming Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) as one of the greatest truth seekers in the history. Benjamin Franklin called him a model of compassion. The Founding Fathers read and honored the same Quran that has been burnt in Bagram base. Thomas Jefferson kept the same Quran in his personal collection.

    Burning of any book is a sign of ignorance because when books burn, people are next. As objectionable as the prospect of Quran burning is, such vitriol hatred of one religion is a descent on a slippery slope, as no one could say who will be next. Earlier, such sacrilegious act has been committed in Guantanamo Bay as well which sparked worldwide protests and violence. The repetitive nature of these events makes one think that fear alone is not powerful enough to make people lust for another’s blood unless it is mixed with hatred of an innate nature. Muslims, on the other hand, should see why such events occur. Is it because they have failed to give the due honor to the Holy Book by not framing their constitution according to the principles outlined in it? Recommend

  • xzy

    @Michael Kugelman:
    The recent burning of the Holy Quran in Afghanistan by US troops is condemnable in the strongest of the possible ways.
    However I wish to bring to you a hypocrisy on part of my fellow Pakistanis.
    If burning of Holy Quran is an unforgivable crime and punishable by death according to them, why wasn’t there a similar hue and outcry by my fellow countrymen when hundreds of copies of Holy Quran and books of Ahadiths were burned on 27th Feburary 2010 in the city of Faisalabad in the aftermath of a sectarian violence between the two main Sunni sects.
    I can provide youtube video link to back up on this but the said video has been made with an intention to incite sectarian hatred and so I choose not to.
    So the lesson learned is that if Pakistani Muslims themselves burn the Holy Quran its forgettable, but it becomes a point of Jihad for them if done by US.Recommend

  • http://obamas-apology-and-the-ashes-of-the-holy-quran Ikramullah

    I do not understand the burning a printed copy of Quran and people get killed in Police firing. After the death of my grandfather, I burned his Quran and bought a gold laced new Quran for my use. People living for Quran and dying for Quran is not a good idea. When I see my book of Quran, I myself question whether the Quran is not the cause for all these premature deaths. Recommend

  • bp

    I see two problems with the lexicon the title derives from:

    The word ‘holy’. God, in the Qur2aan, does use this word (muqaddas), but never for the Qur2aan itself, and God knows best. So we can’t use it in this manner either.
    The Qur-aan /Qur2aan cannot be burnt because it’s words. What somebody would have incinerated is a codex, what’s called a mus-Haf, or in our parts, a nuskhah. That does no harm to the Words of God or to God, so it’s not a problem to me as a Muslim.

    However, what Muslims might be seeing is that somebody is challenging really their existence by bringing affront to what they hold dear. That’s how I see it. But I don’t read news and I’m not privy to the details of this particular one, so I’m prepared to give the actors in the event the benefit of doubt that they did it for technical/logistical/whatever reasons.Recommend

  • kaalchakra

    Ahsan Nisar

    That is a little silly way of thinking. Just because George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt learnt everything they knew from the Quran, it doesn’t mean any other unbelievers have to respect the book. This concept of you must respect/love what I respect/love is an absolute nonsense, at the very least. Actually it is much worse. Do you see that?Recommend

  • Katarina

    You would think that people in Afghanistan would have more important issues than protesting against someone burning some paper. Recommend

  • Loneliberal PK

    It’s a little intimidating that I’ve seen less furore over people getting burned.

    The conundrum I see here is the inability of certain Muslim groups to acknowlwdge that criticizing the ideology of islam is not identical to attacking Muslims. For instance, I’m an atheist, but atheism is not the sum total of my identity. I’m not just a 78kg, 6 feet tall bio ball of atheism…that ideology is just one part of who I am. That’s why when atheism is attacked, however harshly, I never take that as a personal offense.

    That, regrettably, is not how most of the Islamic world appears to function. An assault on Islam, however mild, is viewed as a personal attack on every, single follower. That is simply wrong.Recommend

  • anon

    @Zaid Hamid.:
    so instead of taking that away they decided to burn it? are you serious bro?Recommend

  • Ahsan

    Respect Quran but not us! Apparently we’re more concerned about burning of Quran copies than men. Kill us, burn us, but respect Quran.Recommend

  • http://www.sipchem.com Khalid Nadeem

    As Muslim we respect and believe in all Books revealed by Allah to His messengers.
    Quran is the only Book left, since protected by Allah Himself, whereas other’s yearly new editions are issued with “updated” versions.

    Quran speaks to everyone, including its beleivers and disbelievers.
    so it must be respected by all sides since its a way of life for entire humanity not only muslims alone.Recommend