The Quran in the News

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Slate's Jack Shafer notes a history of poorly-sourced stories about Quran desecration going back (on Nexis) to 1983. One of the stories he cites is verified; the others may or may not be accurate.

While Shafer thinks that Newsweek made a major error when "It let its anonymous source predict the contents of a future government document," he also wonders why the magazine wasn't "more skeptical about Quran-desecration charges."

Reviewing the history of these charges, Shafer asks, "Could it be that the Gitmo prisoners lied or exaggerated about the Quran story, pushing forward the most outrageous meme in their inventory, and that their inflated charges percolated up to Newsweek? The Abu Ghraib photos and reports from various U.S. military lock-downs around the world should prepare us for the possibility that U.S. handlers committed such sacrilege. But if the original source of the allegations turns out to be prisoners, we might want to view their charges with the same doubts we apply to any testimonies about prisons from prisoners."

Note: I know Michael Isikoff, one of the Newsweek reporters at the center of this maelstrom. We once worked in the same newsroom (though not together); his investigative work was justly held in high regard. While I'm at it, Jack Shafer is a long-time friend; I've written for him at two publications.

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  1. Wittgenstein writes somewhere that something is certain without checking the facts, it’s because it’s grammatical certainty. Ie. the military is brutal and disrespectful. There’s no need to check because it’s obvious everywhere, which turns out to describe a reporter mindset.

    This shows up all over, not only in news, only without showing up, so to speak. It’s how things manage to get on.

  2. If Roseanne Rosannadanna were here, I’m sure she’d have some choice words for the people complaining about soldiers flushing Quorn down the toilet.

  3. I’ve heard the question a number of times, but still have not heard an adequate explanation:

    How did Newsweek come to believe that a Quran made it down a toilet drain? Was this an e-Quran on a USB-drive?

  4. Adam,

    The primary sources seem to refer to the buckets the inmates have in their cells. The flush toilet element appears to have resulted from a variation of the “Telephone” game.

  5. Bottom line, the story (however accurate or inaccurate) is that a Koran or Quran or whatever got placed in a vessel for bodily waste.

    How about George Bush tosses a Bible in a urinal and we call the whole thing even?

  6. Maybe the dude who made the “Piss Christ” with NEA money could be brought back to help us with this matter.

    “Alright, here’s the deal. A bunch of Muslims are angry that one of our soldiers allegedly tossed a Koran in a bucket of shit. So, do your thing and create a sculpture of a Bible being desecrated with bodily waste.”

  7. Maybe the dude who made the “Piss Christ” with NEA money could be brought back to help us with this matter.

    Maybe the whole thing was done for art in the first place.

    Who’d’a thunk our soldiers were so avant-garde and that Muslims would be so aesthetically unappreciative?

  8. That picture got a really bad rap, thoreau. It’s really a neat piece of work, and not actually anti-Christian.

    When you first see it, you see a realistic depiction of Christ on the cross, with a sort of hazy golden glow around it. The subject is backlit in a way that resembles a lot of religious-themed pictures, though at an angle that demonstrates a distinctly modern sensibility. It actually appears to be a reverential, sort of mystical work of iconography.

    Then you read the title of the piece, and go “Ewwwww!” It’s an interesting treatment of subjects like reverence, blasphemy, the meaning of images and who creates that meaning.

    The idiot lapdog press, on the other hand, ate out of Jesse Helms’ hand, and reported on the controversy as if it was a photo of a cross lying in a yellow puddle in the mud.

  9. I’m just waiting for the next Veiled Subscription Pitch touting Choice as “the book Newsweek says is ‘so thick with insight that it would clog even a Gitmo toilet.'”

  10. Well, joe, if you’re right, then the artist in question isn’t the right one for the job.

    Still, there must be some artist out there who could accept federal funds to do something totally blasphemous to a Bible and even out the score.

  11. That picture got a really bad rap, thoreau. It’s really a neat piece of work, and not actually anti-Christian.

    When you first see it, you see a realistic depiction of Christ on the cross, with a sort of hazy golden glow around it.

    Wouldn’t any yellowish liquid produce the same effect? How about “Mountain Dew Christ”? Maybe Pepsi could have sponsored him and all controversy would have been avoided.

  12. temujin,

    Mountain Dew contains the known contraceptive Yellow #5.

  13. Are the Korans being discussed mass produced as are Bibles in the US, or are they hand written with ceremony and exactitude as are Jewish Torahs?

    I can see a big difference between a mass produced book being treated like a mass produced book usually is, compared to a “book” that is closer to being a work of art.

  14. Universal Leader,

    The shock of suddenly realizing what produced the mystical golden glow is part of the point.

  15. Curious,

    If I’ve got this wrong, someone correct me.

    In Islam, the Koran is held to be God-made-text, just as in Christianity, Jesus is held to be God-made-flesh. The Bible, while considered to be the word of God, is not held to be God itself.

    So the desecration of a Koran is a greater crime than the descration of the Bible, and is more comparable to the abuse and scorn heaped on Jesus before and during his crucifixion.

  16. The shock of suddenly realizing what produced the mystical golden glow is part of the point.

    I’ve heard suspicions that another fluid entirely was actually used, due to the particular color and dissipation of light. Of course, with filters, etc. you might have to just take the artist’s word for it.

  17. joe,

    So is my paperback koran also inviolate? That’s a problem since I treat it as I would my other books, in a respectful by dogeared way. It’s certainly been stepped on during moves.

    I’ve read elsewhere that’s probably not a problem for me since my koran is an english translation.

    thanks

  18. The guy who created the icon of Mary that included elephant dung got totally hosed, too. In some parts of Africa, that material is considered a symbol of fertility, eg, the material that brings life into the world. Sound familiar, anyone?

    But “America’s Mayor” was too ignorant to know that, too ambitious to find out, and too much of a demogogue to walk his phony crusade back when it was pointed out to him.

    It’s kind of funny – there really are radical lefty religion-hating artists out there doing outrageous things. But every time one of these hububs crop up, it’s over some benign work. Weird.

  19. Curious, I have no freaking idea. I don’t think mass produced texts had been invented when that rule was created.

  20. In Islam, the Koran is held to be God-made-text, just as in Christianity, Jesus is held to be God-made-flesh. The Bible, while considered to be the word of God, is not held to be God itself.

    Actually, according to at least one claim, that depends on one’s sort of Islam. Not sure of the correctness, but it’s at least vaguely plausible in explaining the localization of the riots, assuming the role of the story in the riots is accurate.

    From Jim Henley’s site.

  21. joe

    Remember that for some of us the complaint against the “Piss Christ’ and the Elephant Dung Mary was that they got NEA grants.

    Hell we’d be against NEA grants even if they were for a truly great piece of art, say a Velvet Elvis.

  22. “So the desecration of a Koran is a greater crime than the descration of the Bible, and is more comparable to the abuse and scorn heaped on Jesus before and during his crucifixion.”

    Better analogy: desecration of physical Quran for many Muslims = desecration of consecrated communion Host for Roman catholics.

    Both involve direct physical presence deity in some way, and both have a record of being easily persuaded that Jews are behind the practice of desecration.

  23. Or the Poker Playing Dogs.

  24. Those poker playing dogs have a rich subtext.

  25. So the desecration of a Koran is a greater crime than the descration of the Bible, and is more comparable to the abuse and scorn heaped on Jesus before and during his crucifixion.

    Except for the part about Jesus being a human being and the Koran a, you know, inanimate object.

    The primary sources seem to refer to the buckets the inmates have in their cells. The flush toilet element appears to have resulted from a variation of the “Telephone” game.

    So I see “fake but accurate” is still the going line. Good luck with that.

    And would the “primary sources” be the prisoners themselves?

  26. “Except for the part about Jesus being a human being and the Koran a, you know, inanimate object.” It’s sort of sad that you consider this some sort of contest that “your side” has to win.

    “So I see “fake but accurate” is still the going line.” No one has produced a single shred of evidence that the report was factually wrong, nor have any of the people who habe been making the charges for two years recanted. So “the going line,” whatever that might mean, doesn’t have anything to do with “fake.”

  27. Why did no one stop and reflect, that the Gitmo interrogators could NOT have flushed Islam’s holy book or any other book, because no normal commode is big enough to dispose of even a small paperback without a hopeless clog? And don’t forget- most Koran’s, like most Bibles, are big hardbacks: in other words, to flush one, you’d need a toilet with an outflow vent- and pipes- two feet wide, and probably the water pressure of a firemain.

    You don’t need a secret source in Tehran to check that one. A trip to the executive washroom should have tipped somebody off. But the goal here, as usual, was not to report the truth, but to discredit this Administration by hook or crook.

  28. Martin-

    My understanding is that the original story involved a Koran being placed in a bucket used for bodily waste, rather than being literally flushed through plumbing. Or maybe it was just placed inside a filthy toilet. In any case, the important point is that the Koran was allegedly placed in a dirty vessel for human waste, and the word “flushing” was an embellishment on the original story.

    The original story itself may still be completely made-up, but let’s not get fixated on the plumbing issue. The core issue is that somebody at Newsweek received a (quite possibly) false report of a Koran being defiled, the reporter (apparently) didn’t fact-check very diligently, and this (supposedly) started riots. The plumbing is a detail, not a core issue.

    Anyway, if it will make everybody happy I’m sure we could get somebody to deposit some Santorum on a Bible while a camera is rolling. We can release the video in the Middle East and Central Asia. Not only will it appease rioters, it will also cause an epidemic of aneurisms among America’s religious right.

    Fair enough?

  29. Oh, and I’m sure that there are some fetishists who would pay for an extended DVD of the Santorum being deposited on the Bible. Especially if the video includes the act of anal sex that was used to generate the Santorum in the first place.

    Time to call up some of my former students (the photography school where I teach optics includes a motion picture program) and see if they want to make a video that will make some money, defuse an international crisis, and incapacitate the religious right.

    Who’s with me?

  30. No one has produced a single shred of evidence that the report was factually wrong
    Now, how do you expect people to be able to prove a negative?

    nor have any of the people who habe been making the charges for two years recanted.
    What reason would there be for them to do so? They had a reason to make those charges at the time, whether that be factual or political. Even if some of them did recant, would you really take them seriously? If it had happened, they may just be trying to kiss up to their abusers for preferential treatment. If it didn’t happen, they may be stopping being jerks in order to be seen more favorably. In other words, you would question their motives.

  31. When you first see it, you see a realistic depiction of Christ on the cross, with a sort of hazy golden glow around it. The subject is backlit in a way that resembles a lot of religious-themed pictures, though at an angle that demonstrates a distinctly modern sensibility. It actually appears to be a reverential, sort of mystical work of iconography.

    And you expect that that means Christians shouldn’t object? Just because you think it’s cute?

    The guy who created the icon of Mary that included elephant dung got totally hosed, too. In some parts of Africa, that material is considered a symbol of fertility, eg, the material that brings life into the world.

    Perhaps, but why should American Christians care about that little fact? If Africans want to fund “dung Mary”, more power to them, but why should American Christian taxpayers be forced to fund it?

  32. “Now, how do you expect people to be able to prove a negative?” I don’t. But if people are making definitive statments about a story’s falsehood, they should be able to provide some evidence of someone’s story not holding up. Instead, we get this desperate clinging to the mechanics of flushing.

    Don, Christians can complain about whatever they want, but if they display deliberate ignorance and stupidy when doing so, I’m going to point and laugh.

    And the Americans who should care about the artist’s intent when making the Mary piece are those who called him an anti-Christian blasphemer because they couldn’t be bothered to actually look at the picture. And, of course, those of who enjoy pointing and laughing and deliberate ignorance.

  33. “”Now, how do you expect people to be able to prove a negative?” I don’t. But if people are making definitive statments about a story’s falsehood, they should be able to provide some evidence of someone’s story not holding up. Instead, we get this desperate clinging to the mechanics of flushing.”

    Dude, the story is about flushing a Koran. It’s obviously impractical, and apparently made up (or at least nobody can provide a shred of positive evidence). The “desperate clinging” here is by those who think it’s somewhat persuasive.

    “My understanding is that the original story involved a Koran being placed in a bucket used for bodily waste, rather than being literally flushed through plumbing.”

    Oh, that’s good. You mean “we knew the story couldn’t be true, but we thought it might be a permutation of another, more believable story” is the standard by which we evaluate the credibility of an allegation? It’d be nice to see some folks admit that Isikoff should have been immediately skeptical, and checked just a bit more carefully rather than pass this silliness on as fact. (And based on his earlier Gitmo reporting, and the fact this plays to his obvious prejudice, I’m unwilling to extend him a presumption of good faith.)

  34. And you expect that that means Christians shouldn’t object?

    So, does the artist not count as a Christian for purposes of your argument? I mean, the degree of hivemindedness you’re implying here is sort of self-defeating; “Christians,” as you appear to be using it here, can’t even agree on sprinkling v. immersion, the role of Mary, or what English translation of the Bible to use. Why would you think that “Christians,” in the aggregate, would be of any one mind about this?

    Perhaps, but why should American Christians care about that little fact? If Africans want to fund “dung Mary”, more power to them, but why should American Christian taxpayers be forced to fund it?

    Good thing they didn’t, since the artist was a British citizen of Nigerian descent who created his art over in, well, Britain. I guess you can sleep a little easier tonight, Don.

  35. “a permutation of another, more believable story”

    …that had repeatedly and credibly reported for two years without refutation.

  36. “…that had repeatedly and credibly reported for two years without refutation.”

    How do you “refute” someone’s claim that a Koran has been abused? Do you make an inventory of all Korans in Gitmo, check their pages for signs of wear and tear, and track the condition of each? Is it any surprise it’s one of the Islamists’ favorite accusations?

    There’s one famous case in which it backfired, though. The claims of Koran abuse in a mosque raid were disproven because US troops had been videotaping the incident. In general, though, proving a negative is difficult to impossible. Hence the burden is on the person making the claim to provide positive evidence of it’s veracity–which I note in this case you are not even attempting.

  37. Well, I am after all in Massachusetts. I can’t prove the fake menstrual blood story was real, or the Israeli flag story, or the waterboarding. In each case, I have to decide which reports sound credible and which don’t.

    We know for a fact that “religious humiliation” in an approved and utilized technique at Guantanamo Bay. We know that the abuses at Abu Ghraib began after the commendant of Gitmo was transferred there to “improve” intelligence. We know that 36 (at least) prisoners have died under interrogation, and that every single one of the prisoner abuse scandals have occured in prisons set up for the purpose of interrogation.

    So yes, I find it entirely credible that disrespectful treatment of Korans was used alongside pouring liquor down people’s throat, orderring them to eat pork, and having famale interrogators get jiggy with the detainees.

  38. Now you’re uncritically repeating Andrew Sullivan (who, unfortunately, has his own ax to grind, and it’s affecting the accuracy of his reporting).

    As an example, I’d challenge you to find “religious humiliation” on the list of approved interrogation techniques (hint: it ain’t there).

    As to specifics of Koran abuse as a technique, the Washington Post notes the official policy is somewhat more sensitive (perhaps because of a reported prisoner riot that apparently happened after one was inadvertently laid on the floor):

    More than two years ago, the Pentagon issued detailed rules for handling the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, requiring U.S. personnel to ensure that the holy book is not placed in “offensive areas such as the floor, near the toilet or sink, near the feet, or dirty/wet areas.”

    The three-page memorandum, dated Jan. 19, 2003, says that only Muslim chaplains and Muslim interpreters can handle the holy book, and only after putting on clean gloves in full view of detainees.

  39. Let me get this straight – you’re arguing that the charge that Korans were being desecrated is unreliable, because prisoners rioted over the desecration of Korans, and the Pentagon had to issue a directive on the issue?

  40. When you first see it, you see a realistic depiction of Christ on the cross, with a sort of hazy golden glow around it. The subject is backlit in a way that resembles a lot of religious-themed pictures, though at an angle that demonstrates a distinctly modern sensibility. It actually appears to be a reverential, sort of mystical work of iconography.

    Yeah, I heard that the photo looks like it’s suffused with a heavenly golden glow. But considering the artist chose urine (or putative urine) as the medium, I have to interpret the intent as not real reverence but as a “Gotcha!”

    As in, “Pretty, ain’t it? Hah! It’s piss! Gotcha!”

    Sort of like a nasty version of Madge the manicurist in those old dishwasher liquid commercials. “Urine? Your Jesus is soaking in it!”

  41. The thing about the elephant dung is interesting, though. Thank you for bringing that to light.

    Now, just to nuance the thing a bit, in the Gospels there is a story where Jesus cures a blind man by spitting and making little balls of mud that he smears on the guy’s eyes, or something like that. My religion teacher in my Catholic grade school said the point of that story was even the most base and “objectionable” of human things are not evil, but all have a good purpose, or something along those lines. In other words, no natural human thing can be viewed as intrinsically evil. (Yes, that means sex too.) It’s what you do with it.

  42. “Let me get this straight – you’re arguing that the charge that Korans were being desecrated is unreliable, because prisoners rioted over the desecration of Korans, and the Pentagon had to issue a directive on the issue?”

    Not quite. I’m arguing that the charge that a Koran was flushed down the toilet is ludicrous on its face. I’m also arguing that your charge that the US military at Gitmo has guidelines to desecrate the Koran (as part of the “religious humiliation” program) is contradicted by the actual published guidelines that require it be treated like a “fragile piece of delicate art,” and only handled by Muslims. I’m not surprised you fixate on the possibility of an incident of insensitive handling of the Koran (that led to the guidelines), and suggest it’s evidence of the phantom guidelines you claim must be present.

    I’m also suggesting that if you want people to believe your version, you ought to provide some evidence . . . instead of a baseless accusation followed by demanding the oppostion prove a negative.

  43. “I’m arguing that the charge that a Koran was flushed down the toilet is ludicrous on its face.”

    It’s getting embarrassing, the way you’re obsessing over the plumbing, and pretending not to notice the idiotically simple answer that has been given about a dozen times on this thread. Does your browser screw up the word “bucket” when it appears in text?

    It’s not “my version.” It’s the remarkably consistent statements of numerous people who were prevented from getting together to get their stories straight, and who were determined after years of investigation not to be operatives for any terrorist organizations.

    But obviously, some people will go to embarassing lenghts to keep their world view intact.

    B-b-but – a book can’t fit down a toilet! A book can’t fit down a toilet!

    No one said a book fit down the toilet.

    But a book can’t fit down a toilet!

  44. Cecil-

    All I’m trying to say is that the credibility (or lack thereof) should be evaluated based on the sources (or lack thereof). Getting fixated on plumbing ignores the more important issue of who said what and when and is it reliable?

    As a scientist it’s my habit to identify important questions and set aside the less important ones. For some reason, when I do this some people think I’m doing something fishy.

  45. “All I’m trying to say is that the credibility (or lack thereof) should be evaluated based on the sources (or lack thereof). Getting fixated on plumbing ignores the more important issue of who said what and when and is it reliable?”

    Not sure I disagree with much of that, though self-contradictory parts of the story would tend to discredit it. But if you’re suggesting it got garbled in translation, then it should be obvious that you are dealing with a second-hand account and not the actual source, no?

    “It’s not “my version.” It’s the remarkably consistent statements of numerous people . . .”

    Remarkably consistent? Bucket, toilet, floor . . . whatever. And Koran desecration is a common charge in the Muslim world (which normally wouldn’t even occur to us insensitive military types).

    But again, I’d note the complete lack of evidence. There’s also the “dog that didn’t bark.” You suggest the soldiers at Gitmo are keeping these guys from “getting together to get their stories straight” (though why that should be necessary for witness statements is a bit hazy), but what about the Muslim chaplains and interpreters? Are they all just fine with systematic Koran desecration? Why aren’t they complaining about it? Or is it just remotely possible that this story is false?

    “But obviously, some people will go to embarassing lenghts to keep their world view intact.”

    A better self-fisking than I could possibly have delivered. Cheers.

  46. Good thing they didn’t, since the artist was a British citizen of Nigerian descent who created his art over in, well, Britain. I guess you can sleep a little easier tonight, Don.

    I don’t much care what they do in England, at least as long as it isn’t funded by US tax $. thanks for pointing that out.

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