By Patricia Lee Sharpe
In Afghanistan (and Pakistan) even locals can lose their lives for mishandling a Koran, which mostly they don’t do, although accusations of Koran abuse occur with some regularity. The best way to carry out a land grab is to accuse a landowner of mishandling a Koran. If you are lucky, the accused will get lynched and you can snatch the land with little futher ado. If you aren’t lucky, the accused will end up with a long prison sentence, but the land might still end up as yours.
An American contact was annoyed with me recently. I’d declared that anyone and everyone serving in the U.S. Army (or with any of the allied forces) should know that Afghans are pretty touchy about how Korans are treated. Ordinary American soldiers aren’t going to know that, he said. Even if they’re told, it won’t make any impression. They won’t remember.
I don’t think American troops are stupid. I don’t believe that they are incapable of learning respect for local custom. It’s far more likely that their commanders and their commanders’ commanders haven’t done a very good job of providing the cultural sensitization that (we’re told) is routine. Maybe sensitizing is on the syllabus, so to speak, but carried out so badly, so offhandedly, with so little sense of urgency, that anyone in the audience would fall asleep. Or maybe it’s done in an off-putting preachy way. Sermons do get boring. How clearly are the troops taught that Koran handling is a life and death matter? Your buddy could die. Your vehicle could get blown up. Etc
Like many observers, I was pretty outraged by this unnecessarily provocative act, but it may be that I’m even more puzzled by it. Nowhere in my reading have I found any reference to clear cut, codified procedures for handling Korans, step by step procedures to be followed without fail.
Procedures like these:
1. When collecting waste material belonging of Afghan prisoners, etc., separate all religious texts from any other waste.
2. If the printed material is in Arabic, Urdu or any other local language using a funny script, a trustworthy Afghan must be present during the collecting and sorting process. No exceptions.
2. When handling Korans, do not bend, fold or spindle them. Do not drop or step on them. Do not tear out pages. Do not rip up pages. Do not do anything else might come to mind as funny in a scabrous adolescent way.
3. Deliver all Korans and related material to the Koran Handling Control Officer—and if there isn’t any such office, there should be. When transporting Korans, don’t toss them into a dirty old wheelbarrow or tote them all jumbled up in black plastic bags, etc. Treat them with respect, like the family Bible.
5. It may be that some of the Korans had non-religious messages scrawled in them. Surely that would be a desecration. It might be a good idea to see if a local imam might decry such practices. Fatwah anyone?
6. Have an officially designated place in which to bury the Korans and have an imam or other respectable witness present during the process of burial.
7. Only those authorized should be present during burial/disposal.
8. No unauthorized persons should be able to approach the disposal site. Ever.
9. If any appropriated Korans are innocent of political messages, they should be respectfully donated to a school, a mosque, etc. This would be appreciated. Books are always in short supply—and it would demonstrate cultural sensitivity in a very tangible way.
Maybe a policy like this already exists. Maybe all troops handling trash, etc., are regularly reminded of it. If so, I’d appreciate receiving a copy of the policy. I would post it. In that case, I would hope to learn of a credible investigation into the chain of negligence that resulted in this tragic Koran burning. Americans and Afghans have died as a result of it.
Otherwise, isn’t it time to codify procedures? I’m sure my suggestions could have been expressed more gracefully, although my fear is that sensible procedures would be written in some sort of incomprehensible official bureaucratese.
In which case we would be back where we started. Desecration. Angry Afghans. Riots. Deaths. Blunders providing rich opportunities for stirring up (well-deserved) attacks on the occupying powers.