The picture of burned and charred Korans outraged Afghan Muslims, in fact, Muslims all over the world. It is not difficult to understand their anger. Sadly, the anger turned to violence and the burning conducted by American military personnel last week has resulted in a number of deaths, including more than 40 killed during protests or in suicide bombings, and six U.S. military personnel murdered. Reportedly, the Korans were mistakenly burned, sparking violent protests across Afghanistan. The tragedy of someone burning holy books has led to the greater tragedy of so many lives lost. Questions raised by Muslim friends include: “How could this happen?” “Do Americans have no respect for the sacred books and symbols of others?” “Where are our American values?” There are many others who ask these same questions. Not only Muslims, but all people of faith should be asking these questions.
How could the importance of the Koran be explained to American personnel in Afghanistan? Should we compare the Koran to familiar American sacred symbols, for example the Bible, a crucifix or the American flag? Even these have lost their significance to many. Those young military men and women have grown up in modern America where these very symbols are abused in the name of freedom. These military personnel are part of contemporary America where they see the dishonoring of Bibles as a legitimate exercise of freedom; where religious faith and religious symbols are routinely ridiculed by comedians, talk-show hosts, media announcers and the entertainment industry; where the crucifix can be displayed in a container of urine at a public gallery as art and where the United States flag, which shrouds the bodies of their dead colleagues, is burned as an acceptable act of free expression.
It is easy to see where someone might be tempted to say “What makes the Koran different from the Bible, the crucifix or the American flag?” Actions such as the desecration of religious books, sacred symbols and the one symbol of our nation and its unity, the flag, unfortunately are seen by too many as a protected American freedom – a value. While we need to oppose and reject the burning of the Koran and find it offensive, we need to make the same statement when it comes to the religious symbols of everyone else.
These young military men and women bravely serving in Afghanistan and, before that in Iraq, are told they are there to defend America and American values. At home and abroad, those American values should include respect for the deeply held religious beliefs, and the cherished books and symbols, of all people.