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Why Koran is such a hot button

A disputed report that US interrogators desecrated the Koran has sparked protest.

By , Owais Tohid / May 17, 2005


When Ashiq Nabi got into an argument with his wife, she held up a Koran to protect herself, setting into motion a deadly series of events. Mr. Nabi then pushed his wife, say human rights activists, sending Islam's holy book onto the floor and prompting the local mullah in Spin Kakh, Pakistan, to file blasphemy charges.

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Before the police could act, Nabi was spotted in town and the mullah allegedly spread the word over the mosque's loudspeakers. A mob of more than 400 villagers chased Nabi until he climbed up a tree, then shot him dead.

The April incident is only the latest in a string of extrajudicial killings by vigilantes for blasphemy, which is punishable by death under Pakistani law.

And it helps explain the depth of feeling over the disputed charges that US interrogators flushed a Koran down a toilet in Guantánamo Bay - charges that have sent shock waves throughout the Muslim world.

In Afghanistan, the allegation that appeared in Newsweek magazine triggered several days of anti-American rioting that left 15 dead and scores injured. Protests were also held in Pakistan, Indonesia, and other Muslim countries.

The magazine has subsequently expressed regret over the report after the source, an unnamed senior US government official, expressed uncertainty over the sources of his own information. The Pentagon, which said the original story is "demonstrably false," pledged to investigate the charges and blamed Newsweek's "irresponsible" reporting for the violent clashes.

But while moderate Muslims welcomed the Newsweek follow-up in this week's issue, experts in Pakistan say that the more-extreme passions unleashed across the Muslim world are unlikely to be cooled by the doubts over the story, or by US government assurances that no desecration of the Koran would go unpunished.

The Koran has a special status in Islam that sets it apart from the way many Christians view the Bible, for instance. While Christianity's holy book is held to be divinely inspired and to have been set down by holy men, the words themselves are not considered a direct work of God.

But most Muslims believe that the Koran was transmitted to Muhammad from Allah by the angel Gabriel nearly 1,400 years ago and written down precisely as Allah intended.

In practice, this is one of the reasons observant Muslims are urged to learn Arabic, since a translation is deemed no longer the precise word of God. Strict Muslims are expected to clean themselves ritually before touching the Koran. They don't allow the book to be set on the floor and, in some cases, hold that nonbelievers should not touch the book.

Here in Pakistan, extremists have harnessed the emotions surrounding this and other "blasphemy" cases to challenge the US-backed government in Islamabad.

"Whether it is the existence of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, or desecration of the Holy Koran at Guantánamo Bay, it benefits the extremists," says Tauseef Ahmed, an analyst in Karachi. "No doubt it is a sensitive issue for all Muslims, but extremists try to gain political mileage and fan hatred in society. It all gives new life to extremists and pushes the liberal and progressive forces into isolation."

The controversy comes as the country heads into local elections in July. With the two mainstream political parties sidelined by the government, an alliance of religious parties known as the Mutahidda Majlise Amal (MMA) has gained momentum by pushing religious hot buttons. The group has supported extremists who have disrupted mixed-gender marathons in Gujarnwala and last weekend in Lahore. At protests this spring, MMA leaders attacked President Pervez Musharraf's policy of "enlightened moderation" as a move away from Islam and toward the US.