Quran burning: Were prisoners hiding extremist messages in books?

The Pentagon has launched an investigation into the Quran burning at a US detention facility in Afghanistan. Prisoners might have used the books to pass secret messages, a spokesman says. 

Parwiz/REUTERS
Afghan antiriot policemen watch as smoke billows from a fuel tank supplying NATO troops after it was set on fire by protesters during a demonstration in Jalalabad Province Wednesday. Gunfire wounded at least 26 people during fresh protests in several cities across Afghanistan over a Quran burning at NATO's main base in Afghanistan.

The US military is now investigating whether American military officials ordered Qurans to be destroyed because prisoners at a US detention facility were passing extremist messages in them, an International Security Assistance Force spokesman said Wednesday.

“We haven’t got any proof of that yet, and that is a vital part of the investigation that is ongoing,” Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson said in a Pentagon briefing Wednesday.

Indeed, the entire library of the Parwan Detention Facility at Bagram Air Base, one of the largest US military facilities in Afghanistan, may have been ordered destroyed because of the extremist messages contained in texts, he added.

“It was a considerable amount of material,” General Jacobson said, though he added that he “cannot say” if it was the “entire” library.

There have been some 2,000 demonstrators around Bagram Air Base, as well as “attempts to enter” the base, he said, adding that there was “near penetration” of the base. 

There have been fatalities north and east of Kabul in demonstrations around the Quran burnings. 

“It is a grave mistake,” Jacobson told reporters in a briefing Wednesday, “and we’re all aware of the grave implications this mistake has.”

He also acknowledged “considerable anger” among Afghans.

Indeed, demonstrators have burned tires and thrown stones. There have also been “shots fired,” at some of the installations, Jacobson said.

“Desecrating the Quran – mistreating the Quran – is a grave incident in the Muslim world. As we are not only here to protect human rights but also religious freedom ... this is a grave incident.”

Guards along the base have responded with rubber bullets, he added.

Demonstrations outside Bagram have centered on half-charred Qurans brought out by workers.

Afghan night shift workers at Bagram attempted to stop the burning of the Qurans, showed the books to their day shift colleagues, and brought the Qurans off-base. 

“That is when material left the facility,” Jacobson said.

In addition to extremist messages written on Qurans, prisoners at the US detention facility may have been circulating leaflets “that held inflammatory material,” Jacobsen said. 

The question remains, he adds, “How did Qurans come into this material that was then taken into the burn pit?”

The investigation will also look into whether NATO officials exercised “misjudgment,” or knowingly gave the order to destroy Qurans. “Who basically told soldiers to take it and dispose of it in an improper way?” Jacobson said.

In response to the US military’s perhaps inadvertent burning of Qurans that has prompted two days worth of riots across the country, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan has promised new training for troops in the handling of religious materials. 

This training will take place over the next two weeks, says Gen. John Allen, commander of US and NATO forces. The training will include the identification of religious materials, their significance, and the correct handling and storage of such materials.

In the meantime, the mammoth challenge now is to try to convince Afghan government officials and, most importantly, the people of Afghanistan “how sorry we are about this happening,” Jacobson said, and to “explain that this is a mistake.” 

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