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Koran burning: Can military do more to avoid offending Muslims?

February 22, 2012 |  3:57 pm

Afghanprotest

Hundreds of Afghans are throwing stones, burning tires and chanting "Death to America!" after news broke that U.S. personnel inadvertently burned copies of the Koran at a military base north of Kabul.

The protests have raged for two days after Afghan laborers spotted bags containing the Muslim holy book in trash headed for an incinerator, The Times reported. U.S. officials have apologized, saying it was an accident and ordering training for troops on handling religious materials.

Could the military do more to avoid offending Muslims? The Times interviewed Rochelle Davis, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Georgetown University who has interviewed scores of U.S. military personnel and Iraqi refugees about their experiences. Though Davis has mainly interviewed Iraqis because she speaks Arabic, she has also followed cultural issues and the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

What do you make of this incident in Afghanistan? Is this a simple misstep or something more?

I think it’s symbolic of the 10 years of the war rather than a misstep. This isn’t the first incident. Iraqis have complained  a lot about people going in to do house searches and throwing the Koran on the ground, those sorts of things. But it’s an impossible task to put before a U.S. soldier to recognize the Koran from another book. They don’t know Arabic. How are they going to recognize the Koran?

PHOTOS: Afghans protest alleged Koran burning

But it points to a larger issue of how people feel disrespected by the U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This isn’t about an individual action. When I interviewed Iraqis, they would say, "We didn’t like it when the male soldiers came and searched my wife or my mother."  Or they would say, "We didn’t like it that they would bring dogs in." Those are culturally offensive things to them.

But they said, "Those are things that we can live with. What we can’t live with is the general disrespect shown to us as Iraqis and to our country." That they’re so dismissive of Iraqi capabilities, of their ability to run the country, their ability to do anything.

The Afghans who have been quoted about the Koran burnings say some of that too, that they don't respect our country. [Along those lines, The Times recently quoted a shopkeeper named Wali Aziz, who said, "They are careless with our holy things, and they are careless with our country."]

The larger context of the Koran burnings is what actually drives people’s responses. In some sense it’s about power, that the U.S. has the power to do this.

Did [U.S. Marine Corps Gen.] John Allen say the right things in his apology? How well do you think they handled it?

I was surprised in a good way. He was obviously taken totally by surprise. There’s no reason a person in charge of a base should even know about the disposal of a bunch of stuff. I thought the U.S. response has actually been quite genuine and concerned. They really are trying to win hearts and minds.

But I think the larger thing to keep in mind is that it is about the U.S. occupation of these countries. It’s not about Muslims. It’s not about the Koran. These are the triggers. But the reason these things happen [the massive protests] is because the U.S. is the most powerful force in Afghanistan.

That seems like such a broad problem -- that people resent the power dynamic. Is there any way around that problem?

It is, in a sense, the fundamental conundrum in which people are put when there’s a military occupation. But I think it goes back to a larger problem, when the Bush administration conceived of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Both of those things were conceived of as temporary, targeted missions. The military was asked to go in, attack Al Qaeda and unseat the Taliban, get rid of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Then the U.S. military was tasked with this idea of nation-building, which has to be one of the most offensive terms they could use. To build a nation implies that you have to create a nation. Iraq was a nation. To turn around and call it rebuilding the Iraqi nation, it rubs people the wrong way.

Did the people you interviewed actually bring up that term -– “nation building”?

The term wasn't used in Arabic. But people were aware that that’s what was happening -- the building of Iraq without hiring Iraqis to do most of the work.

What kind of training does the U.S. military get about Islam and Muslim cultures?

They usually get very basic information about the five pillars of Islam and about Ramadan, that Ramadan is a holy month. (Pauses.) I’m struggling because there’s not much more than that.

They get more cultural information about languages and people, what languages different groups speak, in the case of Afghanistan. In the first couple of years they were essentially given pamphlets or shown PowerPoints  -- now it's much more interactive. They send people to mock villages. Some people use those occasions to talk to the people playing Afghan villagers about what they should be doing.

There are also some computer-based trainings where they have to make decisions about how to approach -- if they choose Scenario A, one thing happens, if they choose Scenario B, another thing happens. The change has been good because we don’t learn culture by reading things about each other. We learn by experiencing it.  

But the military is really there to do a job, and that job does not include respecting religion. They would say, "We’re being shot at, we’re being blown up." {Former Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld and his whole crew bear a lot of the blame for this. Very early on in Iraq they worked very hard to keep the State Department and all of the civilian corps out of anything in Iraq. They wanted it to be a largely military thing.

I'm not blaming the military. They were handed a task that they were utterly unprepared for. They’re not out there to be shaking hands and kissing babies.  They’ve of course had to do it, because they don’t get to say no.

You have done many, many interviews with Iraqi refugees and U.S. servicemen and women about these issues. What other things have people said upset them?

A U.S. Marine told me he was working with an Iraqi general. They were on the U.S. base and the U.S. serviceman invited the Iraqi general over to the store on the base and he wanted to buy him a soft drink, a soda pop or something, because Iraqis are always serving the Americans tea and he wanted to reciprocate.

They get to the store and there are two Ugandan guards at the door and they won’t let the Iraqi in because he’s an Iraqi national. And the Marine is mortified. The Iraqi general is livid. He says, "This is my country and your system won’t even allow me to go into the store on the base?" These things come up over and over again in people’s lives.

Have you seen any success stories?

There are tons of them on the individual level. One of the reasons the situation isn’t worse is because of many good individuals, Americans, Iraqis and Afghans who try to get beyond these kind of issues.

I think they are taking culture much more into consideration because they realize they have to keep going back to a particular village and they have to do it right to make it easier in the long run.

I’ve been talking to some of the bomb squad guys, who said that before, they’d blow into some place, get everybody out and dismantle the bomb. The guy I interviewed recently said, "When we know there’s an IED somewhere, we go to whoever's land it's on and we sit down and talk to them and tell them what we’re going to do and tell them we’re going to try to protect their property and thank them. Because we know we’re going to have to go back."

RELATED:

Alleged Koran burning: Afghan anger, contrite U.S. apology

Second day of protests in Afghanistan over mistaken Koran burning

After alleged Koran burnings, Afghanistan forces to get new training

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Afghans shout slogans during an anti-U.S. demonstration in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on Wednesday. The banners in Arabic read, "God is great, there is no God but Allah, Muhammad is his messenger." Credit: Rahmat Gul / Associated Press

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