Obama apology to Afghans for Quran burning: All forgiven?

Thousands of Afghan turned violent, some even killing American officers, despite the Obama apology for the 'inadvertent' Quran burning. Forgiveness doesn't come easily if an apology isn't seen as sincere.

Spc. Kristina Truluck/Joint Combat Camera Afghanistan/DOD
U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Charles Cook (right) talks with a village man at Mullayan, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, Nov. 1.

An apology, as a parent might tell a child, isn’t very sincere if it is meant only to gain forgiveness. Saying “I’m sorry” must be heartfelt, not mere words to avoid consequences.

That lesson is helpful in assessing the “sincere” apology that President Obama made last Thursday to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama formally apologized as commander in chief for a few American soldiers who had burned copies of the Quran at Bagram Airfield on Feb. 20. The holy books had “extremist” language written inside them, perhaps by Afghan prisoners suspected of terrorism.

Given how sacred any copy of the Quran is to a Muslim, the insensitivity of the soldiers was remarkable. And their actions violated military policy. Most of all, the Pentagon had inadequately trained the soldiers to respect this Muslim sensibility.

Obama’s apology came swiftly, perhaps in hopes that it would be accepted as sincere enough to merit forgiveness. Instead, thousands of Afghans rioted for five days, leaving dozens killed. A grenade injured six US soldiers. And two American officers who had been working in the Afghan Interior Ministry were shot, execution style.

It is hard to know if the violence might have been worse if Obama had not apologized. President Karzai accepted the apology and then asked for calm among Afghans. His troops also acted well in suppressing the violence.

Afghan Muslims have to judge for themselves whether Obama’s apology was merely tactical. They may wonder how he can call the burning “inadvertent” when the American military has been in their country for a decade, with rules on how to handle religious materials like Islam’s holy book.

Presidential apologies, especially to other countries, don’t always come easily. President George W. Bush apologized for the abuse of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison and for a soldier who had used a Quran for target practice. He did the same to China over a spy plane incident. President Clinton also apologized to China for a bombing of their embassy in Belgrade.

Obama was not the first US president to apology to Karzai. Mr. Bush did so after the killing of some Afghan civilians. Obama, too, may yet apologize to Pakistan for the recent killing of 24 of its soldiers.

In each case, the offended country must judge the sincerity of the apology while also assessing what reforms the offender makes to prevent another occurrence. Only then can a US president hope for forgiveness that might allow bilateral relations to return to normal.

Forgiving, however, can be as difficult as apologizing. “To err is human,” wrote Alexander Pope, “to forgive, divine.”

Muslims have a strong tradition of forgiveness, just as a largely Christian America has an inclination to apologize. This latest incident should serve as an opportunity for both faiths to better understand each other’s religious desire for personal contrition and mercy.

Perhaps one example that such understanding is possible came after the killing of the two American officers in the ministry. The Afghan defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, called up Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and apologized. It was heartily accepted.

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