May 20, 2005

What's the big deal?

There has been a lot in the news lately about a certain story Newsweek magazine published. It was just a little 200 word blurb in their "Periscope" section about allegations of mistreatment at Guantanamo Bay. Among other things, someone reported that at one point a Qur'an had been flushed down the toilet during an interrogation session. Within the week, Muslims throughout the world were rioting, leaving 17 people dead and many more injured. After a great deal of pressure, Newsweek finally apologized and then retracted the part that said there had been an internal investigation of the incident involving the Qur'an.

But they did not retract the original story. In this week's Newsweek, they talk about how the story came about and the various other allegations regarding treatment by U.S. military personnel. At one point when Newsweek tried to stand up to Pentagon spokesman Larry DiRita's bullying by saying that their source was only backing down from saying that the allegation would be in the upcoming report, not that it wasn't true, DiRita exploded, "People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said. How could he be credible now?"

So, only if the truth is palatable is it believed?

Needless to say, the Muslim world hasn't been too convinced by Newsweek's apology. One mullah is quoted in the Guardian story linked above as saying

"'We will not be deceived by this. This is a decision by America to save itself. It comes because of American pressure. Even an ordinary illiterate peasant understands this and won't accept it,'" and said the call for a jihad, or holy war, still stood."

Many Americans -- including those at the Pentagon who didn't object to the story when they were given pre-publication drafts to review -- are probably rather confused about what the big deal is. It's just a book, right? Granted, an important one. And we understand that burning the flag or a Bible is extremely distasteful. But it's certainly not something that seems worth 17 lives.

The problem is that we make the following analogies: the Qur'an is like the Bible and Muhammad is like Christ. But actually it's the opposite. Muhammad is like the Bible -- the means of receiving the Word of God -- and the Qur'an is like Christ -- the Word itself. While there are translations of the Qur'an, most good Muslims will learn Arabic, or at least prayers from the Qur'an in Arabic, because that is the language of God, a way of being closer to the Word. Indeed, some Muslims even believe it is a sacrilege to have translations.

And considering our own Church history associated with killing Jews after passion plays because they are the ones who killed Christ, you start to understand how this got so deadly so fast.

Obviously, just as was the case with anti-Semitism related to passion plays, this was fanned by many different bellows: poverty, war, anti-Americanism. Anti-Americanism which has either directly or indirectly led to poverty and war.

Yet, what this whole affair has demonstrated is the devaluation of human dignity -- we don't even allow those at Guantanamo Bay the basic human rights accorded to any other human being under the Geneva Conventions -- and the short leap it is to disregarding their most cherished spiritual beliefs. Catholics should be outraged about what is going on at Guantanamo Bay and Iraq and Afghanistan because we as a nation have decided that some lives are more important than others. That human dignity is conditional. That it's no big deal to dump the Word of God in the toilet.