After a number of Korans were burned in rubbish pits at Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, all hell was let loose as angry Muslims rioted and attacked NATO military installations all over Afghanistan.
Quickly realizing the mistake, US commander in Afghanistan, John Allen, apologized for army personnel at Bagram Airbase who “improperly disposed of a large number of Islamic religious materials which included Korans.” He went on to say, “I offer my sincere apologies for any offense this may have caused to the president of Afghanistan, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and most importantly, to the noble people of Afghanistan.” The apology had little effect as the crime, in the eyes of Muslims, could not have been greater, for the Koran represents the word of God.
While General Allen argued that it was an isolated incident, not surprisingly, Afghans have long felt that US troops did not respect their culture or Islamic religion. Indeed, Muslims needed to look no further than the Republican primaries to see that many Americans hold the view that they are not in Afghanistan to protect Afghans and the things that they hold valuable, not least being their religion.
Soon after General Allen’s apology, President Obama added his voice by sending a three-page letter to President Hamid Karzai expressing “his regret and apologies to the inappropriate mishandling of religious material.” Almost immediately Obama came under attack from US Republican presidential candidate Newt Gringrich, who said that the US had nothing to apologize for. No isolated occasion, his comments represent a particularly nasty streak through Western nations of demonizing Muslims and their religious behaviors. Robbed of the red menace, it appears as if they had to replace it with a fear of Islam.
Looking at Gringrich’s record for a moment, he has form. Last year he compared the organizers of the “ground zero mosque” to Nazis. The mosque, you will recall, was to be built within a kilometer of ground zero by a mainstream Muslim community. The subtext was that any Muslim presence was somehow an affront, which recalls the blood libel accusations thrown against the Jews over the centuries. On another occasion, this time in an address to the American Enterprise Institute, Gringrich warned of “stealth jihadis” using “political, cultural, societal, religious, intellectual tools” to destroy Western civilization. Sadly, Gringrich and his fellow Republicans are embarking on another crusade, which is no less misguided that those of the Middle Ages—and it is having exactly the opposite impact of protecting the world against extremists.
Before 2001, Osama bin Laden was anything but a popular figure in the Moslem community. His main argument was that the West was out to destroy Islam by propping up corrupt secular regimes in the Middle East and that Christendom was the main enemy. Even after 9/11, he was roundly criticized by mainstream Moslems. However, as emotions were whipped up by the likes of Gringrich and his Republican friends, suddenly what bin Laden had been saying started to ring true. The Moslem community came under attack by the new Crusaders.
The harm is done. And whether or not Gringrich or any other Republican hopeful win the presidency, every day they conflate extremists with mainstream Moslems, they confirm that their battles in Iraq and Afghanistan have little to do with democracy and everything to do with creating a new bogeyman to fight.