Korans, Guantanamo Bay interrogators, screwy news sources, riots: Who really was to blame when anti-American protests sparked by allegations of Koran desecration broke out earlier this month, leading to 17 deaths in Pakistan and Afghanistan?
It all depends on your theory of cause and effect.
If you're a right-wing blogger or work in the White House (where blame beads off like water on a duck), the culprit was Newsweek. It was a minor "Periscope" item the magazine published in early May, about interrogators throwing Korans into toilets, which sparked the protests -- or so says the administration. The 10-sentence article contained an error, not about the underlying allegation but about whether a Pentagon source confirmed that the military was investigating the charges. The misstep, we are told, caused the bloodshed, which is why we ultimately needed Donald Rumsfeld to say, "People need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be careful about what they do."
The flip side of the story, preferred by most liberals, is that the Bush administration caused the riots by allowing rampant prison abuse to fester and failing to investigate past abuse -- including claims that interrogators did, in fact, throw Korans in the toilet to screw with detainees' heads. (FBI documents released this week show that Guantanamo detainees complained about a Koran-in-toilet incident as early as April 2002.)
But neither of these theories is really correct. In reality, the riots were caused by a kooky concatenation of causes and effects, including an underlying record of abuse by U.S. troops overseas, opportunistic Pakistani politicians, radical Islamists, Afghan university students, and British and American movie stars (more on that below).
There is no doubt that the administration's behavior set the tone for the protests, and that they likely wouldn't have occurred in a vacuum where there was not record of abuse. But the administration itself didn't foment the riots any more than Newsweek's editors shot the protesters. After all, complaints about abuse by U.S. personnel have been floating around since 2002: torture, including mock executions, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and sundry other humiliations; at least 40 dead prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq; checkpoint shootings and civilian casualties. The poor record is exacerbated by gross impunity (save for a few enlisted grunts thrown in the stockade). Why didn't Afghans riot long ago? What really happened here?
The story without heroes began, as many bad things have in recent years, in Pakistan. On May 6, a Pakistani politician named Imran Khan, a former cricket player turned politician, gave a press conference to criticize his country's military ruler, Pervez Musharaff. During the press conference, Imran waved around a copy of the Newsweek article detailing the Koran allegation, crying, "This is what the U.S. is doing -- desecrating the Koran." He also showed a copy of a cartoon that had appeared in The Washington Times portraying Pakistan as a dog being patted by the United States for cooperating in operations against al-Qaeda, noting that it was an insult to Pakistan.