Paul Marshall in National Review yesterday fired off a stinging rebuke of Newsweek for its concocted Qur’an flushing story.
Equally disturbing is the fact that Newsweek reporters seemed to have little idea how explosive such a story would be. While noting that, to Muslims, desecrating the Koran “is especially heinous,” Thomas looks for explanations, including “extremist agitators,” of why protest and rioting spread throughout the world, and maintains that it was at Imram Khan’s press conference that “the spark was apparently lit.” He confesses that after “so many gruesome reports of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, the vehemence of feeling around this case came as something of a surprise.”
What planet do these people live on that they are surprised by something so entirely predictable? Anybody with a little knowledge could have told them it was likely that people would die as a result of the article. Remember Salman Rushdie?
The spark was lit not by Imram Khan but by Newsweek itself on May 9 when apparently none of its reporters or editors was aware of the effect such a story would have. There seems to have been nobody there that knew that death is the penalty for desecrating a Koran in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Egypt is milder, there one would be sentenced to several years in prison under Article 161 of the penal code for “publicly insulting Islam,” or perhaps Article 98, “inciting sectarian strife”; similar patterns are followed in more moderate Muslim countries.
In Pakistan, Article 295-B of the penal code calls for life imprisonment for desecrating the Koran or any extract from it. Last September, mentally handicapped Shahbaz Masih was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment, convicted of tearing up some leaflets that contained verses from the Koran. In 2003, the same judge sentenced Ranjha Masih (no relation) to life in prison for allegedly throwing a stone at a Muslim signboard with a Koranic verse on it during a bishop’s funeral procession. Dozens of other Pakistanis have met similar fates.
In all of these countries, the greatest danger is not from the courts, but from vigilantes and mobs. In Pakistan in 1997, Shantinagar, a Christian town of some 10,000 people, was burned to the ground after a man there was accused of tearing pages from a Koran. In the Netherlands last fall, the documentary producer Theo Van Gogh was butchered after he produced a documentary Submission featuring Koranic verses on women’s bodies.
Even if Newsweek publishes a full retraction, the damage is done. Much of the Muslim world will regard it merely as a cover-up and feel reconfirmed in the view that America is at war with Islam. It will undercut the U.S., including in Afghanistan and Iraq, far more than Abu Ghraib did. “We can understand torturing prisoners, no matter how repulsive” Newsweek quotes one Pakistani saying, “But insulting the Qur’an is like torturing all Muslims.”
It would be charitable to think that if Newsweek had known how explosive the story was it may have held off until it had more confirmation. If this is true, it is an indication that the media’s widespread failure to pay careful attention to the complexities of religion not only misleads us about domestic and international affairs but also gets people killed.
There is no excusing Newsweek’s irresponsibility in publishing an explosive story that was false. But establishment conservatives like Marshall are fighting the last war if they think this is a story that is solely about media bias. Of course the media is biased, and it’s getting worse, but people are waking up to that.
The bigger story here, and the gorilla in the living room that no one wants to notice, is that flushing a Qur’an down the toilet should not be grounds to commit murder. Note the total absence of moral judgment in Marshall’s piece, except that which he directs toward Newsweek. His argument is this: Newsweek should have known that this story would lead to deaths. Therefore, they shouldn’t have printed it. But he says nothing whatsoever about a culture that condones — celebrates — wanton murder of innocent people, mayhem, and destruction in response to the alleged and unproven destruction of a book.
The question here is one of proportionate response. If a Qur’an had indeed been flushed, Muslims would have justifiably been offended. They may justifiably have considered the perpetrators boors, or barbarians, or hell-bound unbelievers. They may justifiably have issued denunciations accordingly. But that is all. To kill people thousands of miles away who had nothing to do with the act, and the fulminate with threats and murder against the entire Western world, all because of this alleged act, is not just disproportionate. It is not just excessive. It is mad. And every decent person in the world ought to have the courage to stand up and say that it is mad.
I suspect that even Paul Marshall, somewhere in the back of his mind, knows that it is mad too. But why doesn’t he say so? Because Rule #1 in the establishment (left and right) view of this present conflict is that it has nothing to do with Islam. To bring a moral judgment to bear upon Muslim people, or to explore the ways in which Islam fuels the conflict, is therefore absolutely forbidden.
Marshall is doing the Western world an enormous disservice. The reaction to the Newsweek story in the Muslim world only shows how critical it is that the elements of Islam that give rise to fanaticism and violence be examined and confronted. Lives are at stake. But to Paul Marshall, it’s all about media bias.
UPDATE: I have altered the headline and some of the material in this post in light of the excellent Andrew McCarthy piece at NR today, which makes some of the points I make here. There may be hope for NR yet.