Koran Burning in Afghanistan: Mistake, Crime, and Metaphor


Richard Falk – TRANSCEND Media Service

On February 20, 2012 several American soldiers, five having been identified as responsible at this point, took some Islamic writings including several copies of the Koran to a landfill on Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan where they were burned. As soon as Afghan workers on the scene realized that Korans were being burned, they recognized what was happening as an act of desecration, and launched an immediate protest. The protest spread rapidly throughout the country, and turned violent, producing at least 30 Afghan deaths, as well as five dead American soldiers that also produced many non-lethal casualties. The incident is under formal investigation by three distinct boards of inquiry: a U.S. military investigation with authority to recommend disciplinary action against the soldiers; a joint U.S./Afghan undertaking; and an Afghan investigation leading to recommendations by a council of religious figures.

The American governmental response has been apologetic in tone, but unconvincingly so. President Obama sent a letter of formal apology to the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, expressing regret and explaining that the incident occurred due to carelessness rather than as a deliberate expression of Islamophobic desecration. Refusing to adopt even a mildly apologetic posture, a reactionary American backlash powerfully surfaced, complaining about Obama’s stance by an insistence that it was the Afghan government that owed the United States an apology given the loss of American lives and an outburst of violence that was totally inappropriate given the accidental nature of the provocation. The reactionary presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, expressed the more or less typical Republican reaction to the incident:  “I think the response need to be apologized for, by Mr. Karzai and the Afghan people, for attacking our men and women in uniform and reacting to this inadvertent mistake.” He added, “This is the real crime, not what our soldiers did.”

Obama, as usual in such situations seemed caught in the headlights of controversy, publicly justifying the apology as necessary “to save lives..and to make sure that our troops who are there right now are not placed in further danger.” Such a backhanded rationale leads to an ironic query: when does an ‘apology’ cease being an apology? Obama obviously wants to appease foreign anger while at the same time affirming his patriotic credentials. He is addressing contradictory audiences, and can only hope that Afghans are not listening when he offers his pragmatic reasons for sending the letter to Karzai. Yet to claim that an apology was necessary to save American lives is hardly a genuine way to express regret, which was the least that should have been done, and could have been properly joined with sentiments of bereavement associated with the American soldiers who were also victims of a misguided military intervention and occupation. In my view Obama needlessly lost ground with all constituencies. Maybe Hilary Clinton had a point during the 2008 campaign for the presidential nomination when she famously taunted Obama: “if you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.”

What is baffling is Washington’s unlearning evident, which flies in the face of its claim that it had redesigned counterinsurgency warfare after the Vietnam experience, above all else, to exhibit sensitivity to a foreign culture that is the site of armed struggle for political ascendancy. Here the cultural insensitivity was monumental, especially if proper account is taken of earlier similar incidents. There were earlier fully publicized desecrations of the Koran that vividly demonstrated how intense a reaction would likely result from a repetition of such behavior. There was a huge outcry following disclosure that a Koran had flushed down a toilet at the Guantánamo Bay prison a few years ago. Somewhat later an American soldier in Iraq was found to have used a Koran for target practice, which provoked a storm of angry denunciations of the American role in the country.

And then there was the shocking spectacle of Rev. Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida announcing to his tiny congregation that he would burn 200 Korans on the anniversary of 9/11 in 2010, an outrage despite its non-governmental character, which was finally successfully discouraged, at least temporarily. But on March 20, 2011 the determined Rev. Jones held a ‘trial of the Koran’ and found it guilty of crimes against humanity, and burned a Koran in the church sanctuary. The result in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif was an attack on the UN Assistance Mission, killing at least 30, including 7 UN workers, and injuring 150. Our man in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, called for the arrest of Jones, but such a request was ignored as perhaps it had to be under American law; the conduct of Rev. Jones was explained (away) as an expression of American freedom of religion that did not reflect official views.

One would have supposed that a halfway vigilant imperialism would have understood that any show of disrespect toward the Koran, whether public or private, and especially by occupying American soldiers, would strike a severe blow against the American role in Afghanistan. At least with American troops, such experience would have led to introducing the most rigorous means to train and discipline occupation forces accordingly. It is not an exaggeration to say that such displays of disrespect for the Koran are more serious setbacks for Washington than would be even dramatic defeats on the battlefield. Why? Because it so clearly discredits the American claim to be present in the country as a humanitarian benefactor respectful of Afghan cultural and religious values.

There is something deeply disturbing, and revealing, about this compulsive inability to show respect for the most sacred artifacts of a foreign civilization. The Koran is the holiest of scripture not only for Islam as the dominant religion of the country but also underpins the unity embedded in the wider cultural identity of the Afghan people. It is a far more potent symbol of Afghan unity than is the national flag or constitution of this otherwise most fragmented of countries, and possibly it is the only source of unity other than opposition to foreign occupation. Americans would themselves react furiously, and likely violently, were the Bible to be burned by foreign military personnel somehow present on national territory, but the truth is that the imperial mindset is utterly incapable of comprehending such a logic of reciprocity, or its ethical analogue, the golden rule. The opposed imperial logic has a different ethic: the wrongs that we do to others we occasionally will excuse as accidental, while being incapable of even imagining that others might dare to do them to us, and if they were stupid enough to do so, a righteous fury of vengeance would be appropriately unleashed.

Tom Friedman, whose arrogance is as boundless as the globalization he blandly celebrates, mimics Republicans by telling his readers that Afghan political and religious leaders have made themselves primarily at fault for their failure to protest strongly against “the killing of innocent Americans,” especially given the accidental nature of the Koran desecration and Obama apology. The liberal interpretation of the incident is only softer in tone than is the Santorum reactionary rant, and suggests an uncritical American consensus that is ready to fight war after war in distant countries without having the slightest pang of conscience or the wisdom to stand quietly before mirrors of self-criticism.

In an important sense, these American soldiers, including those who participated in this unfortunate incident, were fundamentally ‘innocent.’ They are themselves both participants and victims of an occupation of a foreign country that they and their leaders do not understand, a military mission that never have been attempted, and is proving as futile as those many previous Western attempts to domesticate Afghanistan by force of arms, a sorry story expertly chronicled in Deepak Tripathi’s illuminating book, Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (Washington, DC; Potomac). Those who are most responsible for this crime, in my judgment, are those who initially mandated such a war a decade ago and now perpetuate it, and this includes the president and those who favored the war policies that have misguidedly led to a ten year military occupation of Afghanistan with little result except this upsurge of vitriolic anti-American sentiment and a severely torn country. The best that United States policy planners can hope for after inflicting such an ordeal is reaching a power-sharing deal negotiated with the Taliban, the original mortal enemy, which portends a political future for Afghanistan not at all to Washington’s liking, nor consoling to the majority of Afghans. After all those billions spent, lives lost, sacrificed, and misshaped, and devastation wrought there is nothing at the end but the slim hope of learning from defeat after the fact not to go abroad in search of foreign monsters. With the Iran war drums beating loudly, it seems like an idle fancy to suppose that the American political elite will seek the intensive rehab it needs to have any chance of recovering from this addictive militarism that brings suffering to others and defeat and decline to itself.

Of course, unleashing violence in response to desecration does make for a sorry spectacle, and reflects badly on the quality of religious leadership in Afghanistan. At the same time the call of the Afghan clerical leadership for an end to the American nighttime raids on Afghan homes and the insistence that Americans turn over the administration of prisons to the Afghan government seem like reasonable demands long overdue. They touch the raw nerve of the American occupation, and its undisguised contempt for the self-determination of the Afghan people. In light of this, such reasonable demands will not be fully accommodated, but maybe partially accepted as the price of retaining the authority of a foreign occupier.  In this vein, there are reports that the American prison authorities will turn over Afghan prisoners, but retain a veto to deny some transfers.

These American tactics of counterinsurgency are consistently perceived by the Afghan people to be principal sources of ‘occupation terror.’ The American response to these demands sounds as though lifted from a colonial handbook: raids in the middle of the night are effective operations and that the Afghan judicial system is not capable of the handling the legal issues associated with dangerous Afghan detainees. Such a response unintentionally poses an awkward question: ‘who is entitled to govern Afghanistan at this time?’ It has long been the awkward truth that the limits of Karzai’s mandate are not set in Kabul, but by distant Pentagon and White House officials, a reality that makes a mockery of American claims of respect for Afghan rights of self-determination.

This inflammable incident touches on the essence of military intervention and foreign occupation, much more so than the secondary question of whether to treat Koran burning as a mistake or crime. The act of burning is of course from differing perspectives both a mistake and a crime, but more than this burning the Koran is a telling metaphor of all the many instances of flawed Western diplomacy consisting of military intervention and foreign occupation. Such diplomacy flies in the face of the collapse of colonialism and the rise of non-West religion and culture, and produces one costly geopolitical failure after another.  To burn the most holy scripture of a culture, whether by inadvertence or calculation, is the most delegitimizing acknowledgement of bad motives and intentions that it is possible to imagine, as well as a dismaying display of cultural insensitivity.

In this regard Koran burning may be as provocative in its assault on Afghan political culture as was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi with respect to the authoritarian cruelty of the Tunisian regime presided over by the tyrannical rule of Zine El Alindine Ben Ali, who was driven from power as a direct result. The failure of the United States Government even now to appreciate the seriousness of what has happened , despite the several earlier intimations of the great popular significance attached to any show of disrespect toward Islam throughout the Muslim world, altogether discrediting to its claims of benevolence and undermining of its claims to be quelling the global threat of anti-Western terrorism. When the culture screams it is time to leave!


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. He is currently serving his fourth year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

Go to Original – richardfalk.com


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One Response to “Koran Burning in Afghanistan: Mistake, Crime, and Metaphor”

  1. satoshi says:


    Are the boys who burned the Koran, Christians?

    – Mathew 7:12 ‘So always treat others as you would like them to treat you; that is the Law and the Prophets.’
    – Luke 6:31 ‘Treat others as you would like people to treat you.’

    (Translation: Online New Jerusalem Bible)

    So, as Christians, you did to Afghans as you would like them to do to you?


    If you are Catholic, read this:

    3. The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.


    Relevant provisions of the “Geneva Convention of 1949”
    – “The Fourth Convention”:

    Art. 3. In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:

    (1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
    To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
    (a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
    (b) taking of hostages;
    “(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;”
    (d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.

    – “Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977”
    Part IV : Civilian population #Section I — General protection against effects of hostilities #Chapter III — Civilian objects.

    Article 53 — Protection of cultural objects and of places of worship

    Without prejudice to the provisions of the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict of 14 May 1954, and of other relevant international instruments, it is prohibited:

    (a) to commit any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples;
    (b) to use such objects in support of the military effort;
    (c) to make such objects the object of reprisals.


    Article VI
    “I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.”

    A Comment: You are responsible for your actions. You are, therefore, responsible for burning the Koran if you did it. If you trust in your God, pray for the peace of Afghanistan. If you trust in the United States of America, let the United States of America bring about “peace and love to Afghanistan without any violence”. (Needless to say, you cannot bring about peace and love by using violence.)


    Most soldiers you are fighting against have nothing to do with the War on Terrorism. They are fighting against American soldiers because Americans have invaded Afghanistan.

    Think of the average Afghan soldier’s income. They have no money to fly over to attack the United States. Most of them are living in the remote countryside. (Even most of them do not have money all the way to come to Kabul from the countryside to attack the US Embassy.) Afghanistan’s GDP per capita is $260 while that of the US is about $46,000. The distance between Kabul and Washington DC is approximately 11,160 km or 7,000 miles (= 6,000 nautical miles). So, it is obvious that the average Afghan cannot buy the air ticket to go to the United States. Afghanistan’s Taliban soldiers are no exceptions. Their priority is to feed themselves, their families and relatives who are also very poor. Their priority is not the United States at all. Their priority is their own living. How can you say, then, that it is realistic for you to think that these poor soldiers are able to attack the United States effectively? Think about their living standard in terms of their life expectancy as well. Life expectancy of the Afghan is 43.8 years (the world shortest life expectancy!) while that of the American is 79.2 years (= 1.8 times of the Afghan’s life expectancy). The world shortest life expectancy implies the Afghan people’s horribly abject living standard. Look at their extremely poor living standard! Afghan soldiers’ families and relatives are crying desperately for food, drinking water, medicine, cooking oil, detergent and other basic needs. If they lose the main income earner of their family, who will support their family? If you kill an Afghan soldier and then, will you support his family’s living after that?

    You say those Afghans are dangerous to the United States? How many Afghans harmed the United States so far? The fact is that most dangerous people to the United States are Americans themselves. Why? Because most criminals in the United States are Americans. In fact, most prisoners in prisons in the United States are American citizens.

    Then, why do you invade Afghanistan? Why do you kill Afghan soldiers who are defending their land States? You would say that it is the right thing for you to defend your country from the invasion of soldiers of other country. But would you say that it is not the right thing for Afghans to defend their country from the invasion of soldiers of other country?

    As mentioned above, most Afghan soldiers have nothing to do with you. They did nothing harmful to you. Once again, I dare to ask you: Why do you kill them? To burn the Koran is a symbolic act of killing them. By bullets, you have destroyed their flesh and blood? By burning the Koran, you have destroyed their spirit and culture?


    Article One: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit.”

    Do you think that the Article One of the UDHR is a fossil of the 20th Century and no longer valid? Or do you think that the Article One is a revived new guideline toward a better world of humanity in the 21st Century?