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Afghanistan: The Significance Of The Koran

By Amin Tarzi

Demonstrations, some of them violent, have recently rocked Afghanistan as well as several other countries with Muslim majorities. In Afghanistan, these demonstrations, led initially by students, have claimed at least 13 lives. Ostensibly, these demonstrations began in protest at a short report in the U.S.-based "Newsweek" on 9 May, which alleged that interrogators at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba "in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet."

"Newsweek" has since admitted that the story was not completely accurate. In the magazine's 23 May issue, the "Newsweek" editor said, "We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst."

While there are reasons to believe that the demonstrations in Afghanistan are fueled by factors not related to the report about the desecration of the Koran, the report touches an extremely sensitive issue among Muslims -- especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For most Muslims, their holy book represents more than a text of the words of God. The Koran not only represents the living message of God to humankind, but also it is believed to have powers that would render it as a living thing.

Surah 59, Verse 21 of the Koran states that "Had We sent down this Koran on a mountain, verily, you would have seen it humble itself and cleave asunder."

Muslims are instructed to handle the Koran only when clean. Surah 56, Verse 79 requires that "none shall touch [the Koran] but those who are clean."

Among Afghans and Pakistanis, the Koran itself is regarded as a holy relic and some regard it as having supernatural powers. The book is usually wrapped in expensive cloths and placed at the highest place in the room. Those who handle the Koran traditionally kiss it several times and rub it to their eyes, before reading it. The same ritual is repeated after the reading is done. If a copy of the Koran accidentally falls on the floor, Afghans usually give special offerings in God's name for forgiveness.

On 12 May, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, addressing a committee of the U.S. Senate, opened her remarks by saying that disrespect "for the Holy Koran is not now, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever be, tolerated in the United States." Rice added that any disrespect for the Muslims' holy book is "abhorrent" to the United States.

It is difficult to know whether a preemptive statement on the allegation made by "Newsweek" would have calmed Muslim sentiments around the world, especially in Afghanistan where the protests became violent and bloody. However, religious communities in those countries and elsewhere in the Muslim world could also have tried to prevent the demonstrations from being hijacked, as the case in Afghanistan increasingly suggests, by other political aspirations.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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