Furor over a reference in a brief magazine article to flushing a "Quran down a toilet" shows how small the world is today, yet how wide gaps are in culture.
The article in the May 9 edition of Newsweek is blamed for riots in Afghanistan last week in which at least 15 people died and scores were injured.
In this week's edition, the editor of Newsweek apologized for any part of the story that was wrong, and late Monday, the editor went further by issuing a statement that retracted the story that had said a military probe of interrogation abuses at Guantanamo Bay found that "interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Quran down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash."
The riots last week occurred after newspapers in Pakistan and Afghanistan ran accounts of the Newsweek article by Michael Isikoff and John Barry, which attributed the information about the "Quran flushing" to unnamed sources. The magazine article said investigators probing alleged abuses at Guantanamo had "confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year" and then cited the above referenced incident.
In fact, a spokesman for the Pentagon said the probe of Guantanamo abuses had not even looked into charges of Quran desecration.
Newsweek says its original source is now uncertain where he read about the abuse of Islam's holy book.
"Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay," Editor Mark Whitaker said in a prepared statement issued Monday afternoon.
The whole incident has left U.S. government officials in Washington with a dilemma, because Americans throughout the Middle East, especially members of the military, are at greater risk because of the violent reaction to the alleged abuse of the Quran.
While Americans might find the Islamic response puzzling, it is important to recognize that followers of Islam believe desecration of their sacred text deserves punishment. It's not for us to judge whether one thinks the Middle Easterners reacted appropriately or overreacted to the article but to recognize that in the Islamic custom their "holy book" is "holy," thus they take great offense to a desecration.
Their attitude toward their holy book is neither right nor wrong - simply their belief. That means reasonable, intelligent people throughout the world will respect one another's customs and beliefs. Showing respect doesn't mean one is buying into the beliefs; rather that one is accepting those beliefs and customs as something that should be respected.
While Newsweek intended no harm, its lapse in journalistic standards, which remains to be explained, has created an international crisis at a time when the United States doesn't need more adversaries, especially in the Middle East.