Why Koran is such a hot button

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

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.

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.

Now, the group is leveling similar charges following the Guantánamo controversy and a recent Washington Times cartoon that depicted Pakistan as a dog and the US as its master. Previous news articles have included accounts of US interrogators desecrating the Koran at Guantánamo.

"By insulting the Koran, they have challenged our beliefs," said Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a top official of the religious alliance, at a rally in Islamabad. "It has happened due to the liberal and progressive policies of Western-influenced Muslim rulers."

Sunday, a group of Afghan clerics vowed to call for a holy war against the US in three days unless it handed over the military interrogators reported to have desecrated the Koran. The same day, MMA president Qazi Hussain Ahmed announced plans for a global protest on May 27 involving 25 leading Islamic organizations including Hamas, Hizbullah, PAS of Malaysia, and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.

As part of its "enlightened moderation" policy, Pakistan has tried to amend or abolish a number of religious ordinances, including the blasphemy laws. But Islamabad has backed down after opposition from religious parties.

More than 4,000 blasphemy cases have been registered since the laws were enacted in 1986, according to human rights activists. While no one has ever been officially executed for blasphemy, dozens have been killed by vigilantes.

"That should be prosecuted vehemently. Only the government can take a person's life," says Ghafoor Ahmed, the deputy chief of Jamaat-i Islami, a major component of the MMA. Still, the blasphemy laws are necessary, he says. "No one who believes in God or in the prophets of God can allow them to be insulted."

Campaigners against blasphemy laws in Pakistan say there are inadequate protections for the accused, who under current law must be arrested before any investigation begins. Often lower court judges are intimidated into passing a guilty verdict. If challenged, it takes years for the upper courts to review to verdict. In the meantime, blasphemy prisoners are vulnerable to violence. Those who are eventually acquitted sometimes must flee the country.

Blasphemy cases rarely involve malice against Islam. Rather, the charges are often pretexts rising out of petty issues ranging from cattle theft to land disputes. They are also used as a weapon against religious minorities, says Shabaz Bhatti, head of the All Pakistan Minority Alliance.

Last November, a Christian girl in the small town of Wah Cantt was accused of blasphemy after someone spotted pages of the Koran in a trash bin outside the house where she was cleaning.

Before the police could investigate, extremists attacked the house and threatened to kill her. Muslim and Christian elders intervened and handed the girl to the police in a bid to save her life, locals say. She was released, but the death threats continued, forcing her and her family to leave.

"We still feel that we are living under danger, under a shadow of a fake accusation," says a relative of the girl. "We have lived with our Muslim brothers for decades. They respect our beliefs and we respect their beliefs, except there are some extremists who want to ignite feelings on the basis of baseless allegations."

Dan Murphy in Cairo contributed to this report.

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