Official response to the February 22 burning of copies of the Koran at Bagram Airfield by NATO troops has been a breathtakingly thorough exercise in damage control.
The profusion of apologies from government and military officials, including but not limited to President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. John Allen, who is commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan, are only the beginning. According to the New York Times:
Within a few hours of learning about the episode, General Allen ordered an investigation, and by day’s end he issued an order for every coalition soldier in Afghanistan to complete training in the next 10 days in “the proper handling of religious materials.”
Well, all I can say is it’s good to know that administration and military leadership are concerned about armed forces understanding “the proper handling of religious materials.” One could easily have gotten a very different idea from that earlier incident in which military personnel at Bagram Airfield—the very same location—burned stacks of confiscated Bibles.
Military personnel threw away, and ultimately burned, confiscated Bibles that were printed in the two most common Afghan languages amid concern they would be used to try to convert Afghans, a Defense Department spokesman said Tuesday.
The unsolicited Bibles sent by a church in the United States were confiscated about a year ago at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan because military rules forbid troops of any religion from proselytizing while deployed there, Lt. Col. Mark Wright said.
Such religious outreach can endanger American troops and civilians in the devoutly Muslim nation, Wright said.
“The decision was made that it was a ‘force protection’ measure to throw them away, because, if they did get out, it could be perceived by Afghans that the U.S. government or the U.S. military was trying to convert Muslims,” Wright told CNN on Tuesday.
Troops at posts in war zones are required to burn their trash, Wright said.
You can see where military personnel at Bagram Airfield might have been confused about the propriety of burning religious materials after that, can’t you? I mean, it was okay when it was burning Bibles in 2009. Now suddenly in 2012 it’s not okay to burn Korans? How were the poor troops meant to know the difference?
At least, I assume President Obama had no problem with the 2009 Bible burnings at Bagram Airfield. I sure don’t remember him and other government and military falling over themselves to apologize for that.
The reality is that the Obama administration couldn’t care less about “the proper handling of religious materials.” Their sole concern is what will or won’t offend potentially violent Muslims—not because of any exaggerated respect for Islam in particular (looney “Obama is a secret Muslim” conspiracy theorists to the contrary notwithstanding), but because angry Muslims equals violence. Who cares about burning Christian holy books? What are Christians going to do about it?
In practice, “the proper handling of religious materials” means: If religious objects offend Muslims, burn them. But if the burning of religious objects offends Muslims, apologize for burning them. Whatever it takes not to offend Muslims, because, again, they’re the ones who get violent when offended.
As a postscript: Some American Christians feel, not entirely wrongly, that Muslim veneration of the Koran exceeds Christian veneration of the Bible, and therefore desecrating Korans is a bigger deal to Muslims than desecrating the Bible is to Christians. That’s not entirely incorrect. For Muslims, the Koran is the supreme self-revelation of God, while for Christians the supreme self-revelation of God is not the Bible, but Jesus Christ himself.
Still, surely no one thinks the government or military should be in the business of assigning degrees of holiness to religious articles, and according respect only to objects of maximum sacredness (say, the Blessed Sacrament, but not a cross or a rosary). If “the proper handling of religious materials” is an issue at all, it should apply as much to Bibles as to Korans.
It should also be noted that the perception that Muslim veneration of the Koran exceeds Christian veneration of the Bible is somewhat exaggerated in the minds of Western Christians, and especially Western Protestants, among whom the whole categories of sacred objects, veneration and desecration are significantly atrophied.
To the Afghani Christians for whom the burned Bibles were intended, as well as Christians throughout the Middle East and in the global South, desecration of the Bible is a much bigger deal than it would be to most American Protestants.
As a case in point, consider the outraged response of Malaysian Christians not long ago when the Malay government refused to release Bibles referring to God as Allah unless they were stamped with the words “For Christian Use Only.” Malay Christians strongly objected to this as a descration of their holy book in a way that many American Christians would not understand.
What do you think?