Disaster either way

An Afghan protestor holds a copy of Islam's holy book Quran as he shouts slogans during an anti-US demonstration in Jalalabad. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

In Afghanistan this week, a wave of angry protests has erupted against the behavior of United States military personnel after the Americans, the story goes, didn’t realize what they were doing when they decided to dispose of Islamic religious materials by incinerating them.

There has been popular outrage, followed by official apologies, and explanations that the incident, which took place at a U.S. military base, was a mistake.

It’s one of those puzzling cases in which one doesn’t know which is worse: If the Americans knew what they were doing, it is a disaster, and if they were this careless and didn’t know what they were doing, it is also a disaster.

One would think that by this time, U.S. government personnel would have in place some set of procedures to prevent such incidents from taking place; one doesn’t have to be a scholar to know about the issue of religious sensitivities, particularly in the Muslim world, when it comes to Qurans and other matters of faith.

Whether it was a half century ago, when India saw protests over a British newspaper’s depiction of the Prophet Mohammad, or the more recent Danish cartoon controversy, there are plenty of reminders of how heading into such waters will inevitably generate controversy and anger.

It is difficult to know what to make of the actions of the American military personnel, and whether they should be attributed to innocent ignorance, or a more cynical nonchalance, that such actions “don’t matter.”

In each case, tremendous damage is done – to people’s religious sensitivities, and to the innocent victims of violence when street protests get out of hand.

The U.S. government simply needs to address the issue and take proactive steps to ensure that it isn’t repeated. First of all, U.S. authorities should be aware of the fact that a Quran is a Quran, a book that happens to be holy to thousands of American military personnel.

Moreover, there should be a review of whether tossing “religious materials” into a heap and setting them on fire is even the proper way to act in the first place. Retaining them, in order to allow interested parties to study them, would be a more prudent policy then simply lighting a bonfire.

The U.S. has no shortage of public relations disasters as it pursues its strange policy of “stabilization” in Afghanistan. American officials talk about winning hearts and minds but pursue disastrous policies and make horrendous mistakes, which have real-world consequences. The use of drone and other aircraft to conduct an unending series of bombings in a country such as Afghanistan has led to “mistake” after mistake, in the form of innocent civilian casualties.

Washington requires a policy and a system of accountability to prevent such worrying, destabilizing “mistakes.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 24, 2012, on page 7.




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