So Newsweek has retracted its report about the defiling of Islam's holy book, the Koran, by interrogators at Guantanamo Bay.
But it's too late. Muslims everywhere are questioning America's respect for all religions. Journalists are wondering what standards allowed the charge to be printed without proof. Foreign policy analysts are asking how the riots incited by the charge will affect the war on terrorism. Still, at least one more question needs to be asked: Even if the Koran was mistreated, are violent riots justified?
"What do you expect?" my critics will declare. "Abusing the Koran is like abusing basic human rights. If you're a good Muslim, your identity and dignity are bound up in revering the Koran. It's the literal word of God. Unsullied. Untouched. Unedited. Unlike the other holy books."
Sorry. That argument just doesn't wash. One can appreciate the Koran's inherent worth, as I do, while recognizing that it contains ambiguities, inconsistencies, outright contradictions -- and the possibility of human editing. This is not simply a reform-minded Muslim speaking. This is Islamic tradition talking.
For centuries, philosophers of Islam have been telling the story of the "Satanic Verses." The Prophet Muhammad accepted them as authentic entries into the Koran. Later, he realized they deify heathen idols rather than God. So he belatedly rejected the verses, blaming them on a trick played by Satan. Which implies that the Prophet edited the Koran.
Let's push this point further. Because pious Muslims emulate Muhammad's life, those who compiled the Koran's verses after his death might have followed his example of editing along the way. The compilers were, after all, only human -- as human as Muhammad himself.
Moreover, they collected the Koran's verses from sundry surfaces such as bones, stones and bark. How did the passages get there? According to Islamic lore, the Prophet, an illiterate trader, couldn't personally record them. His companions served as scribes, often writing from memory. Given so much human involvement, isn't it possible that errors infiltrated the "authoritative" Koran?
In asking this question, I'm neither impugning the allegorical wisdom of the Koran nor inviting another fatwa on my life. I'm saying that Muslims have to get comfortable asking such questions -- and not merely whispering them -- if we're going to avoid a further desecration of human life. Riots in Afghanistan have already resulted in at least 14 deaths. Aid workers have been attacked; their offices burned. How does this benefit the cause of dignity -- for anyone?
Many will insist that I'm undermining the dignity of Muslims by challenging a pillar of their identity. By urging my fellow Muslims to consider these questions, I'm showing faith in their capacity to be thoughtful and humane. I'm appealing to their heads rather than only their hearts. Ultimately, I'm fighting not Islam but the routinely low expectations of those who practice it.
Contrast that with the strategy of Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician who rallied his countrymen to express rage based on one paragraph in Newsweek. A fierce rival of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, Khan objects to cooperating with the U.S. on security matters. He knew his comments about Newsweek would feed the most reflexive of Muslim impulses: to treat the Koran with uncritical veneration.
Such lazy tactics remind me of those used to drive the Miss World Beauty Pageant out of Nigeria in 2002. That fiasco led to more than 50 deaths. It wasn't the affront of immodestly clad women that sparked the uproar. Rioting began only after a columnist suggested that the Prophet would have gotten a kick out of the pageant and taken its winner as his wife. An imprudent remark, but should it have caused banditry and murder?
When people believe that certain aspects of religion are off-limits to questions, it doesn't take much to incite violence -- or to withhold forgiveness. In the Nigerian case, even though the offending newspaper apologized three times, Muslim protesters set its offices ablaze.
As I write, Muslims worldwide are scheduling demonstrations for the end of this month against those who insult Islam. They'll peacefully protest not just the possibility of the Koran's desecration at Guantanamo but the proven torture at Abu Ghraib as well as civil rights violations suffered by ordinary Muslims in the United States. They have every right to condemn these injuries.
Will they also speak out against the bloody, fiery riots that, in the name of honoring Islam, are killing an increasing number of Muslims and non-Muslims?
It's a question worth asking.