Perhaps Newsweek did get it wrong; an American interrogator did not flush a copy of the Koran down a toilet in order to get information from a detainee at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. But apparently there were abuses of Islam's holy book, some intentional, some accidental. Many Muslims have strict rules concerning its handling.
The Bush administration angrily denied the flushing charge and lambasted Newsweek for its negligence. It certainly didn't endorse desecration. In fact, the reason there were opportunities for abuse is that the administration bent over backwards to make sure that the terrorist fanatics held at Gitmo whose goal it is to kill Americans all had copies of the texts they use to justify their murderous ways.
Muslims around the world had assumed that abuse of the Koran was another case of infidel America's war on Islam, as was the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. At least fifteen people were killed in violent anti-American riots in Afghanistan and protests have taken place in Pakistan and elsewhere. The government of Afghanistan says that Newsweekshould be held responsible for the death and damage.
Continuing news coverage of this story has focused on administration policies toward detainees. But the real story concerns the nature and danger of religious fanaticism.
By definition all religions have some or many tenets that must be accepted on faith, not on rational or objective, philosophical grounds. Thus each religion has many interpretations.
In the case of Islam there are those adherents today who maintain that their religion teaches peace and tolerance and bans murder as contrary to the will of Allah. They tend to be in the tradition that flourished in the Islamic world a millennium ago that respected open inquiry, scholarship and reason. Of course today the most serious international threat to peace and freedom comes from radical Islamists who commit the most heinous crimes -- who strap explosives to their own children in order to kill innocent individuals -- in order to terrorize others into mindless obedience to a primitive, repressive theocracy. Those who rioted, burned and destroyed at a possible insult to their holy book fall into this group.
This reaction highlights the difference between the dominant culture in the West and in the Islamic world. In Islam the Koran is considered the revealed word of God. Those who do question it, criticize it, reject it, even satirize it risk death. (See the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.) In the more secular West differences are tolerated. Indeed, this tradition grew out of a rejection of the religious fanaticism practiced for centuries in the West; Catholics and Protestants in Europe butchered each other by the millions over, among other things, whether the bread and the wine in communion is symbolic of Jesus' sacrifice or whether it is His actual flesh and blood.
Of course, in America today there are those who would, if they could, ban what they consider to be blasphemy. Fortunately we have a Bill of Rights that stops them. Granted, many American rightly have nothing but scorn for creeps who burn our flag, whether they're rage-filled Islamists in the Middle East or home-grown hippy burnouts and spoiled middle class ingrates going to college on Mom and Dad's credit cards while denouncing the evils of the capitalist system that gives them every luxury and opportunity in life. Many pandering American politicians even push for a Constitutional amendment to ban such desecration. But fortunately not only American law but also American culture tends to back free speech, even and especially for those we consider to be creeps because tolerance doesn't mean acceptance of their beliefs; it means that we understand their right to believe what they want, even if it is idiotic, and that it's through open discussion and debate that truth is obtained.
One might think that strict Muslims and other religious fundamentalists should strongly support a tolerant culture rather than crying that their fragile feelings are hurt by blasphemies because it is their beliefs that are most open to criticism and that might deserved to be banned if bad ideas -- for example, those that encourage repression or terrorism -- were to be expunged by state action.
After all, the Old Testament offers many okays for slavery, approval for murdering innocent children (1 Samuel 15:3, Psalms 137: 9,) raping women (Isaiah 13:15,) ripping open the bellies of pregnant women (Hosea 13:16), stoning to death persons who work on Saturday (Exodus 31:12-15), and the like.
And Jews will hardly be thrilled with Koran passages like, "The Thalmud people [Jews] rejected their prophet through their inordinate wrongdoing." (Sura XCI, 11) And how about "They that deny our revelations we will burn in fire. No sooner will their skins be consumed than we shall give them other skins, so that they may truly taste the scourge." (Sura IV, 56). It takes a pretty thick skin to tolerate stuff like that!
Muslim fanatics who self-righteously riot and kill at insults to the Koran manifest the irrationality of their beliefs and culture. Rational individuals are outraged at those beliefs and that culture, but should also understand that tolerance will expose the errors of these fanatics. The fanatics, of course, fear tolerance because open discussion and inquiry exposes the nature of their cause.
The lesson of the Koran abuse story is that those who reject reason must reject freedom; those who embrace irrationality must embrace intolerance and force because they have closed off all rational appeals. And that is why peaceful and free regimes -- whether in Middle East countries or America -- must be based on a culture and philosophy of reason, not mysticism.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.