The stories of guards and interrogators flushing,
stuffing, or dumping Korans in toilets may remain frozen between allegation
and denial forever. However, there is another instance of alleged Koran mishandling
that has been far better substantiated. As reported by the press in February
and March 2002, it does not sound nearly as damning as the alleged toilet incident
– although former detainees may disagree. At any rate, it does raise an interesting
question for us today: Why has the mainstream media and the Pentagon virtually
ignored the 2002 incident as a potential source for much of the current tension
surrounding the treatment of the holy book?
The trackback begins with a recent Washington Post article in which
Robin Wright describes strict rules for handling the Koran that the Pentagon
insists have been in place for more than two years – that is, since before May
2003. Indeed, as quoted by Wright, the policy sounds quite enlightened. It is
very specific in directing personnel to handle the Koran in ways that signal
care, respect, and reverence. It even specifies that the Koran should not be
placed near toilets. (Wright, "U.S. Long Had Memo on Handling of Koran,"
Washington Post, May 17, 2005.)
What seems peculiar is that such a specific policy should emerge out of the
blue a year after detainees began arriving at the camp. And, in fact, it did
not emerge out of the blue – but followed at least one well-documented incident
in which a Koran was mishandled.
Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald reported on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2002,
that a protest had begun at Guantanamo the previous Friday: "Friday's episode
occurred when a detainee thought an MP kicked a Koran, said army Lt. Col. Bill
Costello. 'One started shouting Allahu Akbar. So other detainees started
shouting Allahu Akbar.'" (Carol Rosenberg, Knight Ridder, "Detainees
Test Guards: Chants Follow Perceived Slight to Koran by an MP,"
The Gazette (Montreal), Feb. 24, 2002.]
Other permutations of the story asserted that the MP had indeed kicked the
holy book, but mistakenly, during a surprise inspection – or had simply picked
it up and dropped it. (Carol Rosenberg, Knight Ridder, "Detainees at Gitmo
Refusing to Eat," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 1, 2002; Andres
Leighton, "Tension Rises at Prison Camp," Associated Press,
March 2, 2002.)
Tensions continued to build through the next week, culminating in a camp-wide
hunger strike when a guard interrupted a detainee in prayer in order to forcibly
remove the prisoner's makeshift turban. (While praying, the prisoner would not
respond to verbal demands).
The hunger strike began on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2002. In addition, on Thursday,
prisoners began to throw their gear over the camp's fence. This prompted the
commander of the camp, Marine Gen. Michael Lehnert, to address the prisoners
and make some concessions. As reported by John Mintz of the Washington Post,
"'The general told them they would be allowed to fashion the headdress
but that we will still inspect them,' said Marine Maj. Stephen Cox, a camp spokesman.
'He said their religion would be respected, and we understand the sacred nature
of the Koran.'" ("Detainees' Protest Wins U.S. Reversal; Cuba
Inmates May Fashion Turbans," Washington Post, March 1, 2002.)
This incident has not disappeared entirely from the collective memory, but
it has transmuted in an interesting way. Washington Post reporter Carol
Leonnig recalls it in a recent story, but relegates it and the entire hunger
strike to the realm of allegation. Leonnig writes:
"James Yee, a former Muslim chaplain at the prison who was investigated
and cleared of charges of mishandling classified material, has asserted that
guards' mishandling and mistreatment of detainees' Korans led the prisoners
to launch a hunger strike in March 2002. Detainee lawyers, attributing their
information to an interrogator, have said the strike ended only when military
leaders issued an apology to the detainees over the camp loudspeaker."
(Carol D. Leonnig, "Desecration of Koran Had Been Reported Before,
Washington Post, May 18, 2005.)
And so, the corroborating press accounts from 2002 are gone, as are the confirming
quotes by majors, colonels, and generals – to be replaced by the allegations
of detainee lawyers and a besmirched former Muslim chaplain.
*Calgacus has been employed as a researcher in the national security field
for 20 years.