The Christian Science Monitor reports that the US military is disciplining troops over an incident that provoked outrage in Afghanistan early this year, the burning of some copies of the Koran. In the wake of that incident some thirty people were killed during riots in Afghanistan.
It's unclear to me that US soldiers serving in Afghanistan need to abide by Islamic law while there; but if, according to US military guidelines, that is the case, so be it. Unfortunately, there may be some misunderstanding on the part of the US military, as well as those Afghans who rampaged, about the pertinent point of sharia law.
When the incident first happened I decided to ask the opinion of a friend who is a member
of one of London's leading chambers of barristers, is one of Europe's
leading experts on sharia law, and is a descendent of a Sufi saint... Sadakat Kadri, author of the best-selling Heaven on Earth: a Journey Through Sharia Law.
Kadri responded to me via email that the prescribed method for disposing of a Koran that can no longer be used is to burn it.
Let me re-state that, adding my own emphasis:
The prescribed method for disposing of a Koran that can no longer be used is to burn it.
Why, then, were the US soldiers who
disposed of those books under threat of a serious prosecution, and why are they being disciplined now?
First, of all, as a writer I believe all books should be treated with respect. Further, one should, of course, make a distinction here between burning as
an act of disrespect and burning to end the existence of a copy that,
for whatever reason, can no longer be used. Americans should easily be
able to understand the distinction between the burning of a flag in
protest or anger and the burning of a flag that is already damaged and
can no longer be displayed. In the later case, that is, indeed, the
prescribed way for handling an official flag, or a flag of a certain
size if it has been damaged, soiled or even touched the ground.
The copies of the Koran in question were apparently altered, or marked up, by Afghan prisoners in order to pass messages amongst themselves. As such, the books were unusable. The question remains whether the prisoners who marked up those books and made them unusable should be disciplined under Islamic law... but that seems a question we ourselves should turn away from.
In any case, as I've said, given the above, it seems very odd that these soldiers should be disciplined at all.
The Christian Science Monitor report, which improperly conflates the above incident with another incident in Afghanistan, may be read here.
My earlier posts on this topic can be found here and here.
Kadri's fascinating book on sharia, Heaven on Earth: a Journey Through Sharia Law, may be found here.
The Blu-ray edition of Bruce Beresford's classic film Breaker Morant can be found via here.
And more on the topic of etiquette around these matters by Lee Smith, from some years ago in Slate, here.