On Language

Quran Burnings: Accidental, Intentional Or Unclear?

A sample of how other news sources have described the Quran burnings that happened in Afghanistan last month. Each example represents only one instance, and not coverage as a whole.

A sample of how other news sources have described the Quran burnings that happened in Afghanistan last month. Each example represents only one instance, and not coverage as a whole. NPR/Stephanie d'Otreppe hide caption

itoggle caption NPR/Stephanie d'Otreppe

One month ago, charred copies of the Quran were pulled from a burn pit at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. The responsibility for the perceived desecration of Islam's sacred book fell on U.S. soldiers, triggering anti-U.S. protests that killed more than 30 Afghans and six Americans.

The violence appears to have died down, but a fight over how to describe the burnings has not. NPR reporters and hosts have referred to the incineration as "accidental" in some stories, provoking criticisms from many listeners that they are buying the U.S. military's framing of the event. Other stories refer to simply "the Quran burnings," which others critics charged is irresponsible and inflammatory because it suggests that the destruction of the holy books was purposeful.

Given the confusion that still surrounds exactly what happened, the opposing criticisms are not surprising. NPR doesn't have a policy on how to label the burnings, and, frankly, I am not sure what should be said either. The rest of the mainstream independent press seems to be as lost, best I can tell.

NPR has an uncommonly informed audience, and so perhaps one of you has insightful guidance to offer.

Early indications are that the Qurans came from the prison library on the base. They may have been ordered destroyed, or at least guarded, because they allegedly contained scribbled secret messages being passed and forth among Afghan prisoners, or possibly even to a courier taking the messages outside the prison.

Whatever happened, someone decided to burn the books, as Bill Lex of Daly City, CA, noted. "So what's accidental about that?" he said.

But listener Sherry Schreiner from Grand Junction, CO, said it was still "an accidental event." She said that "the Quran may have indeed been burned, but a 'Quran burning' is an entirely different situation." Calling it just a "burning" she said, "will continue to anger and incite those already beyond reason, even as you report the loss of still more Americans."

I see both points. The burning was not accidental in the sense that someone decided to destroy them. But they are accidental—or 'inadvertent', 'careless' or any of a number of other near synonyms being used in the press—in the sense that U.S. policy and cultural training of troops insists on respecting the Quran. Apparently—I say apparently—no one responsible for policy knew of the burning, or approved of it. Nothing we know so far suggests ill will.

What we don't know is from how high up the order came. But all those Afghan and American critics who want to blame "the military" as if it were a singular organic force do not appear to have ever been in the military, especially in a war zone. I have. As in any large organization—and most small ones—it is impossible to control the acts of every individual.

Maulvi Khaliq Dad, an Afghan religious leader appointed by President Hamid Karzai to investigate, has said the burning was intentional. We might have a fuller sense of what happened once the results of two other investigations are made public. A Pentagon spokesperson told intern Stephannie Stokes from my office that a U.S. investigation is still underway, while an investigation jointly-led by U.S. and Afghanistan is finished but has yet to be released. Of course, it's possible that the three will conflict and only leave more confusion.

Stephannie Stokes contributed to this report.

Please continue the discussion on Twitter @SchumacherMatos or on Facebook.

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