Obama Gets Heat For Quran-Burning Apology

Obama administration officials sent apologies after fatal riots broke out in Afghanistan, following the burning of Qurans. But was saying sorry necessary? Host Michel Martin talks with two Muslim Americans with differing views: Arsalan Iftikhar, author of Islamic Pacifism, and Asra Nomani, who trains the U.S. military on cultural sensitivity.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we hear the story of one fashionista who's been searching for a way to mix her love of fashion with her practice of the law. We'll hear where her journey took her in a minute. It comes from our weekly peek into The Washington Post Magazine. But first, we want to talk about those anti-American riots in Afghanistan where more than 30 people have been killed, according to The Associated Press.

It all started about a week ago when word got out that copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, were burned at Bagram Air Base by American personnel. That set off a wave of riots across Afghanistan. Two American service members were shot and killed over the weekend in a secure area and the Taliban are claiming responsibility for a deadly car bomb at Jalalabad airport.

The U.S. military acknowledges that the Qurans were improperly disposed of, but officials say it was a mistake and there is an investigation under way, and a number of administration officials, including President Obama and the head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen, have apologized for the incident. Here is a clip of the Pentagon's Peter Lavoy apologizing to a group of Muslim Americans at a mosque in the Washington, D.C. area.

PETER LAVOY: We at the Department of Defense regret and apologize for this incident. We are fully investigating it. We are learning from it and we are committed to ensuring that such an incident will never happen again.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about why this incident has caused such an intense reaction, so we've called on two regular contributors. Both are Muslim and each has a different view of the ongoing controversy. Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and the author of the book "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era," and you know him from our weekly Barbershop segments. Asra Nomani teaches journalism at Georgetown University.

She also conducts cultural sensitivity trainings for the U.S. military and American law enforcement, and you may recognize her from our regular parenting conversations. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Thanks for having us, Michel.

ASRA NOMANI: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So Arsalan, I'm going to start with you. Can you explain why the burning of the Quran has been treated with such an intense reaction?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I think its all about context. Even though there's not one uniform way that Muslim scholars say that a Quran should be disposed of, burning the Quran is one of them. But again, it's about the context and who's doing it. And so I think what most people were concerned about was the fact that not only was the Quran burned but it was essentially incinerated with other garbage as opposed to giving it to Afghan allies which NATO forces have and them disposing of it.

So I think that's the context that we're talking about here.

MARTIN: Asra, what's your assessment? What's your take on why you think this has caused such an intense reaction?

NOMANI: Well, I think it's interesting Arsalan used the word context, because to me what we are really in is a culture war between the culture that, you know, has responded to this burning of the Qurans with violence, and our culture, where we hope that, you know, an apology will be an apology and just be taken as that, and I think, you know, a lot of Afghan culture, a lot of Muslim culture is what you call high context cultures, where there isn't just a book that's being burned but that it's a symbolic word of God to many people and then it also reflects this deeper grievance, right, against the West.

And so context isn't actually just today and the war in Afghanistan, but then you end up bringing up decades and centuries of grievances, and so in our culture I think we oftentimes have the tendency to be wound collectors, and this becomes the latest wound.

MARTIN: Asra, since you've been teaching cultural sensitivity to people in the military and also people in law enforcement for a while now, what are some of the things that you teach them about the Quran? Do you have specific teachings about the way that the book itself is to be handled? For example, do you teach that, say, non-believers should avoid touching it at all, or what are some of the things that you teach?

NOMANI: I don't. I don't teach that non-believers should not touch the Quran. What I try to definitely teach is sort of an intelligent approach to understanding Islam that doesn't look at it as monolithic, that understands that many people have different perspectives on the Quran, that, you know, we actually do have atheists within the Muslim community also.

We have people who look at the Quran as a research book. We have people who, you know, don't have the reverence for the Quran as the word of God, and just like Christian theology has many different approaches. But I also teach that, you know, there is this narrative inside of our community that has accepted it as the word of God and that, you know, we struggle inside our community with what - the reverence that we hold for it because, you know, Islam was brought to the world with this idea that it was against idolatry, but to me we've really started engaging in a sort of phenomenon that I call Quran-olatry where we virtually worship the Quran as a thing beyond just a book.

MARTIN: Arsalan, what do you have to say about that?

IFTIKHAR: Well, again, I think that, you know, none of this can be viewed in a vacuum. You know, we have to look - when you look at the war in Afghanistan, you know, most recently, as Asra and I were talking about before we came on air, you know, the most recent controversy was the video of American soldiers urinating on Afghani corpses.

You know, and even in terms of the Quran burning, this wasn't the first time that it happened. In 2010 at Bagram Air Base, a similar situation occurred. Bagram Air Base also holds a very strong visceral reaction with people because after 9/11 it was one of the CIA's black sites where a lot of purported torture happened, and with the Quran burning I think it's also important to look here domestically.

We all remember Florida Pastor Terry Jones, who in a publicity stunt went around the nation saying that he was going to burn the Quran, and so I think that it's more indicative of how people in the East tend to view us in the United States.

MARTIN: Okay, but let me just stop you on this whole question of the military. One of the things you cited, which is members of the military who were videotaped apparently urinating on some corpses - these weren't just like random people, these were combatants, and some of these combatants were also visiting terror upon Afghani civilians. And so I think what might be puzzling for some Americans is why is it that sort of the treatment of combatants and some - is conflated with and seemed as an insult to Islam overall.

IFTIKHAR: Well, again...

MARTIN: Or is it being treated as a propaganda tool?

IFTIKHAR: It is, well, I mean it is. I mean at the end of the day, you know, when incidents like this occurs, this only serves as propaganda tools for people like the Taliban to say that, you know, we're committing these bombings now in reaction to these Quran burnings. And that's why I think, you know, obviously, you know, Asra and I, you know, we condemn violence in any form and we think that, you know, no violent reaction should happen at all to these sorts of things, but again, it can't be seen as a vacuum.

You know, these are the proverbial straws that broke the camel's back and so, you know, when soldiers are urinating on dead corpses, this is in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which is something that even the Pentagon has admitted. You know, so it's more about, you know, after 10 years - this has become America's longest war. You would figure after a decade in Afghanistan we would be a little more culturally aware of a country that we've been occupying and it's clear that we've not reached that point yet.

MARTIN: We hear from two of our regular contributors, Arsalan Iftikhar and Asra Nomani, and we're talking about the ongoing controversy over the U.S. military burning copies of the Muslim holy book at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. A number of U.S. officials have apologized for this, including the president, but it has set off a wave of violent attacks, including the murder of two American service members at a secure area in Afghanistan. So Arsalan, do you think that the president and these other officials were right to apologize for this?

IFTIKHAR: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Because as you know, there are a number of people, conservative critics...

IFTIKHAR: Right.

MARTIN: ...who are saying that he went too far.

IFTIKHAR: Well, absolutely, and it's really interesting because they, you know, the Republican primary candidates are acting as though this is the first time that a president has ever apologized to a Muslim world leader. Let's not forget in 2008, President George W. Bush personally apologized to Iraqi President Nuri Maliki when it was found out that American soldiers in Iraq were using Quran during target practices.

You know, we – 2004, President Bush apologized for the Abu Ghraib scandal. I mean, again, you know, this is just - it's a political football that the Republicans are using right now. They don't have, you know, the same standard for their own president.

MARTIN: Asra, do you think that the president and other high government officials were right to apologize?

NOMANI: Well, we're absolutely not in a traditional conventional war. You know, we're in a culture war also, and in doing that we have to practice something that I call cultural jujitsu, and so saving face is really important in that society. And in that way, you know, inside of our Muslim community, it's incumbent upon us to really change the way we relate to the Quran and not take it as this book that has to be honored to the point where human life is valued less than the book. I mean, that to me is completely unacceptable.

And the U.S. shouldn't placate the lowest common denominator of our community.

MARTIN: What would you like to have come from this? And Arsalan, I'll go to you first, and then, Asra, I'll give you the last word on this. Arsalan, what would you like to come from this incident?

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, I think, with any global controversy, you know, you hope that it becomes a teachable moment, where something obviously like this doesn't happen again, but from our own side within the Muslim community, I do agree with Asra to an extent. I think that it is important. You know, I've said on my Facebook and Twitter feeds ever since it's happened, I've said people who kill people over burning the Quran have obviously never read the Quran before, because the Quran is more than, you know, a bunch of pages that are bound together. It's a universal message to Muslims worldwide.

MARTIN: Asra, what would you like to see come from this? And I take it you would like the teachings and the learning to be on, you know, both sides of the equation, as Arsalan was just saying as well.

NOMANI: Yeah. I want us to all, you know, try to rise to the highest expression of humanity, and that means that we try to be respectful to each other. We are in a war and we can't forget that, I think, and so a lot of these symbols, a lot of these politics is played out for the purpose of war. And I just hope that we can all, you know, try to go to a deeper spiritual understanding of how we want to relate to each other instead of, you know, just responding to offenses with violence.

MARTIN: And before I let you go, Asra, you essentially - I see you are working with members of law enforcement and the military. What has been your experience so far with the people that you're teaching?

NOMANI: You know, I went into it traditionally thinking like, oh, folks are going to just be really hard about things, but - man, I notice that there's this cultural gymnastics virtually going on where people are, like, bending over backwards trying to figure out how to do things properly.

Listening to General Allen's apology was a little bit uncomfortable for even myself because I was like, wow, when he, you know, was a little boy and wanted to be a soldier, I can't even imagine that he pictured that this is how he would express himself one day. But this is the new war that we're in and I notice that people are really trying hard to figure things out and they get a really hard time.

But sometimes I'm like, wow, you know, you're really twisting yourself up trying to understand a culture and to relate to a culture that is so foreign from your own, but I see the effort really being made.

MARTIN: Asra Nomani teaches journalism at Georgetown University. She's also a cultural sensitivity trainer for the military and law enforcement and she's traveling in Salt Lake City right now and she joined us from there.

Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com, author of the book "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era," and a regular contributor to our Barber Shop roundtable, and he was here with us in Washington, D.C.

Thank you all so much.

IFTIKHAR: Thank you, Michel.

NOMANI: Thank you.

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