A fire bell in the night for the West?

“It [the Koran] is the great visceral connector that makes all Muslims feel that there is a community between them. … For Muslims, dissing the Koran is the hot button of all hot buttons.”

Lee Harris, May 12, 2005 [1]

One need not be a Pollyanna to find a bright spot in an otherwise negative experience. A case in point is the violence and demonstrations that erupted across the Muslim world after Newsweek’s May 9 article claiming copies of the Koran were deliberately desecrated by U.S. soldiers at Guantanamo Bay. In Afghanistan, 16 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in four days of demonstrations, and protests occurred in Yemen, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Gaza Strip, and elsewhere. Newsweek has since retracted its article and expressed sympathy for those killed in the violence the article sparked. But as the major Pakistani daily Dawn said on its editorial page, the disclaimer comes too late, “the damage has been done.” [2]

While the violence over the Koran-desecration story may or may not continue, it is important not to hastily cross off the incident as an ephemeral issue. It is even more important to avoid attributing the reaction to al-Qaeda’s cynical manipulation of the crowds, or knee-jerk anti-U.S. bashing by anti-Western Muslim governments. Instead, the Newsweek article provides a timely opportunity to test the two main Western assumptions that undergird strategy for the War on Terrorism: (a) barbarism not faith motivates Islamist terrorists, Islamic militancy, and anti-U.S. Muslims, a group small in number and on the fringe of Muslim society, and (b) America and the West are hated for what they are and not for what they do.

The Reaction I: Motivated by Barbarism or Faith?

Popular reaction to the Newsweek story shows the extent to which the everyday lives of Muslims is dominated by their faith. Demonstrations occurred spontaneously around the world, showing the immediate and powerful impact a perceived slight to an Islamic sanctity has among ordinary people. Granted that this is the fourth instance in which Muslims believe their sanctities have been profaned; they already consider the three holiest places in Islam — the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Jerusalem — to be occupied by infidels. It may be true, therefore, that Muslim nerves were rubbed raw before the Koran controversy, and that previous irritation sharpened the reaction to it. Nonetheless, the intensity and extent of the popular reaction suggests that it would be incorrect to assume that only those who support Islamist leaders like Osama bin Laden viewed the episode as an attack on the Islamic faith. Troublingly, it also highlights the Muslim world’s readiness to take at face value, and without reflection, accusations of intentional U.S. and Western offenses against Islam. The desecration was not a surprise, one protester in Gaza told the media, because “The Holy Koran was defiled by the dirtiest of hands, the hands of the Americans.” [3]

Beyond the negative reaction of the so-called “Arab street,” the reported desecration of the Koran immediately became a top-priority issue for Islamic, secular, and dictatorial Muslim governments. Pakistani President Musharraf called for a “thorough investigation,” and his regime dismissed as “inadequate” Newsweek’s retraction;[4] Qatar’s state-run al-Watan called the episode “an unusual crime … showing the depth of hatred inside some Americans for Islam;” [5] official Syrian television described the incident as a “horrible crime … [that] went beyond aggression on humans and touched the essence of the Islamic faith;” [6] Prime Minister Badawi of Malaysia called the episode “very saddening” and assessed that it was “meant to humiliate Muslims” — the latter, of course, a theme prominent in bin Laden’s writings; [7] and the Saudi regime expressed “deep indignation” over the issue and urged “deterrent measures should be taken against the perpetrators.” [8] In addition, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, representing 57 Muslim states, denounced the incident; the Gulf Cooperation Council called for the “harshest punishment;” and Iran’s foreign ministry said the incident showed “a hostile tendency in the United States toward Islam.” [9]

The purported desecration also earned attacks from some of the world’s most senior Islamic religious leaders. In Egypt, the Grand Mufti Dr. Ali Gomma termed the incident an “unforgivable crime” in the face of which Muslims cannot stand with “hands folded,” while the sheik of al-Azhar University, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, said, “The Quran’s desecration is a great crime and should be dealt with at once.” [10] This reaction also bridged Islam’s Sunni-Shia divide. The Sunni grand mufti of Lebanon, Muhammed Rashid Qabbani, for example, described the event as a “crime” and called for an investigation by a multinational committee with Muslim state members, while Lebanese Shia leader Sheik Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah called the reported desecration as “part of an American program — of contempt for Islam,” and “one of the American methods of torture” used against Muslims. [11]

The Reaction II: Prompted by What the West Is or What It Does?

The outpouring of protest and violence after the Newsweek report also suggests that U.S. and Western actions vis-à-vis the Islamic world are watched closely, and with a mindset now conditioned to believe Muslims and their faith are under attack by the West. To date, not one of the major Islamist militant leaders — bin Laden, Zarqawi, Zawahiri, Abu Bakr Bashir, et al. — has said a public word about the desecration incident, and yet worldwide demonstrations have occurred and the air has been filled with harsh condemnations from government and religious leaders.

This reality suggests that when bin Laden repeatedly claims that Islam’s war with the United States and the West is based on what they have done and are doing in the Muslim world — and not by the mere existence of their societies and freedoms — he is speaking not only for himself and other militants but for a very broad swath of the world’s Muslims. This does not mean that all of those Muslims will pick up guns to defend their faith. It does suggest, however, that the West may be whistling past the graveyard when it concludes that bin Laden’s followers are nihilists and that their views are shared only by the Muslims’ world lunatic fringe.


Before attributing the Koran controversy solely to a poorly sourced magazine article and the ability of al-Qaeda and other groups to cynically exploit it, the West would do well to draw a lesson from the episode that would help formulate better plans to cope with and defeat Sunni militancy. That lesson is simply to conclude that a substantial number of the West’s opponents in the War on Terrorism are motivated by faith, and that they find U.S. and Western actions — especially those that seem to target Islamic sanctities — overwhelmingly more offensive and humiliating than the norms and lifestyles of Western societies.

Objectively, the negative reaction of Muslims at all societal levels to the Newsweek story, and their reluctance to credit the magazine’s retraction, should not have been a surprise in the West — and yet there is every indication of Western shock. This reaction can only be explained by the West’s stubborn and widespread belief that Muslims have no legitimate complaints about Western actions. The Sunni mufti of Lebanon put this reality concisely during the Koran controversy, suggesting that such self-delusion is a recipe for the West’s ultimate defeat. “Every day,” Sheik Qabbani said, “the United States commits new follies that deepen the hatred of the Islamic world toward it, and still Americans officials say ‘why do they hate us?’” [12]


  1. Lee Harris, “On Not Getting the Koran,” May 12, 2005, Techcentralstation.com.
  2. “In the Grip of Violence,” Dawn (Internet), May 15, 2005; James Rupert, “Islam’s Growing U.S. Rift,” newsday.com, May 14, 2005; and Carlotta Gall, “Muslims’ Anti-American Protests Spread From Afghanistan,” New York Times, May 14, 2005.
  3. Sayed Salahuddin, “More Deaths Follow Koran Abuse,” www.sundaytimes.news.com.au, May 14, 2005.
  4. Ahmed al-Haj, “Reported Quran Desecration Sparks Outrage,” Associated Press, May 14, 2005, and “Pakistan Dismisses Newsweek Retraction on Koran,” Reuters, May 17, 2005.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Analysis,” Syrian Arab Television, May 14, 2005.
  7. “Throwing al-Quran in Toilet an Act to Humiliate Muslims,” Bemama (Internet/Malaysia), May 15, 2005.
  8. “Saudi Ire at Koran ‘Desecration,’” BBC News, May 13, 2005.
  9. Sayed Salahuddin, “Afghan Press Urges U.S. Action Over Koran,” Reuters, May 14, 2005 and “Tantawai: Qur’an Abuse ‘Great Crime,’” Gulf Times, May 17, 2005.
  10. MENA, May 15, 2005, and “Tantawai: Qur’an Abuse ‘Great Crime,’” Gulf Times, May 17, 2005.
  11. “Lebanese Cleric Urges Probe into Koran Desecration,” Reuters, May 15, 2005.
  12. Ibid.

Published: Antiwar.com

Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.