I am not sure when the first incident of burning or desecrating the Quran occurred. I am even less sure when the last time will be. But there seems to be no shortage of people in the world who seem intent on doing so! Why is that? And what should Muslims do about it?
In Denmark, in 2005, there was a series of escalating events, which started with the publication of the now infamous twelve cartoons, mocking the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). That led to a call to boycott Danish goods, and further to the burning of the Danish flag, which in turn incited some Danes to threaten to burn the Quran.
However, there were many Danes who came to the defence of Muslims in Denmark, who make up only three per cent of the five million Danes, by staging large demonstrations of up to two thousand people. Some imams took the initiative to organise a peaceful march to bridge the gap between the two groups.
In 2005, at Guantanamo Bay detention centre, as published by Newsweek magazine, allegations that United States personnel had deliberately damaged a copy of the Quran by flushing it down the toilet, in order to torment their Muslim captives, were confirmed by government sources.
In 2010, Pastor Terry Jones of a church in Florida, provoked international condemnation after announcing his plans to burn the Quran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York. He then cancelled the plans, only to oversee the burning of a Quran a few months later. In response, Muslims in Afghanistan rioted; 12 people, all Muslims, were killed.
In February 2012, protests broke out in various parts of Afghanistan over the improper disposal of Qurans at the US military base at Bagram, for which the US apologised. As might be expected, protesters shouted “Death to America” and burnt US flags. Here again, 30 people were killed, mostly Muslims, but including six US soldiers after members of the Afghan National Security Forces turned their weapons on them. In addition, hundreds of Muslims were wounded.
Most recently, in August 2012, a Christian girl was detained at a Pakistani prison after being accused by her furious Muslim neighbours for burning some pages of the Quran, in violation of Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws. And yet, there was also suspicion that the girl was mentally retarded. But the episode brought hundreds of Muslim protesters onto the streets. On the other side of the divide, Christian neighbours terrified of potential and perhaps deadly reprisals, abandoned their home.
From the above, it would seem that those who want to light the fuse of Muslim rage have found a sure way of doing so. Muslims, like all other religious groups, revere their holy book. However, they also hold that the Quran is the direct word of Allah, and not of a prophet or disciple or other wise man. Before they pick up their copy to read it, they are supposed to go through the elaborate process of ablution, just as they do before performing prayers.
I have been to public discussions in the west, where someone has wondered why the Quran is in Arabic if Muslims insist that it is meant to address all people of the world. No one would touch that sensitive issue with a barge pole!
There needs to be mutual understanding between different religious groups in order to avoid this very tragic and avoidable loss of life. Non-Muslims should try to appreciate how Muslims regard their Quran, and why they riot at the depiction of their prophet, even if that might seem irrational to them, because they proudly depict Jesus at every church.
At the same time, Muslims need to understand that non-Muslims not only do not share their views, but also find these views irrational and extreme, because they are used to freedom of speech, even when directed against the Pope, their prophets and gods. They need to consider, with cool heads, why this ten-year-old Pakistani girl ended up with burnt pages of the Quran, if indeed that is the case. Is it worth sending thirty people to their death in order to express their rage?
Here is what might help. Let us have a highly respected Islamic centre, such as Al Azhar in Egypt — or another in Indonesia or Pakistan — take the responsibility to issue a cool and rational statement after the next wilful or even accidental burning of the Quran. It should condemn it, and demonstrate why such act is insulting to the 20 per cent of the world’s population, and that such acts are futile. It should rise above any vengeance or violence.
When hot-headed proud Muslims know that Al Azhar has responded on their behalf, they should be far less likely to resort to violent demonstrations, and their own riot police should respect any quiet and dignified protest they might put on.
This will not happen overnight, but Muslims need to start that process — without fighting over which Islamic centre will be given that responsibility. Having said that, I am reminded that in Pakistan, two prominent political figures who spoke out against blasphemy laws were assassinated!
Dr Qais Ghanem is a retired neurologist, radio show host, poet and novelist. His two novels are Final Flight from Sana’a and Two Boys from Aden College. He lives in Canada.