The ongoing Newsweek imbroglio is reminiscent of a joke from Punjab in the 1980’s , when an uncertain and violent political climate in the state gave cover to a number of criminal gangs. A kidnapper has nabbed the son of a rich merchant. After allowing the father to stew for a few days, he decides to send him a ransom note — “Unless you deliver a quarter of a million rupees, you will never see your child again.”
After phrasing the ransome note with great care, the kidnapper hands it over to the hostage saying, “Go and give this to your father!”
The son delivers the note. The distraught father pays up — and sends the son back to deliver the money!
The current pile-up of absurdities would be utterly comical if it were not for the bedrock of tragedy on which it rests.
Following reports of the Koran being thrown in the toilet at Guantanamo Bay, first came the agitations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other places, where people were killed in police firings.
Which is worse, that there are human beings who are just picked up on suspicion and held without trial, tortured and abused (known facts), or that a revered book has been (allegedly) desecrated? Unfortunately in the Muslim world, detention without trial, torture and custodial confessions are common occurrences to which people are inured, whereas disrespect to the Holy Book is a matter capable of causing uniform outrage. As in the famous insight of the Sufi, Mulla Nasruddin, one looks for the lost object at a certain place not because it was dropped there, but because that’s where the light is shining brightest!
A sober response would be to investigate the allegation while putting things in perspective. But, as with the kidnapping story, the American response too has been farcical. Instead of asking Pakistan (a country founded and operating on religious exclusivism), Afghanistan (which most recently has had Islamic law written into the constitution) how they treat other religions — Saudi Arabian customs tosses copies of the Bible and the Gita in the waste basket when found on visitors — the US is at pains to explain that the rules at Guantanamo are so strict in this regard that the Koran is only supposed to be handled by a muslim priest, and with a gloved hand, etc.
A 19th century Bengali literary icon with a keen nose for hypocrisy wrote a story where he made the high caste woman boast that, throughout her long affair with her low-caste lover, she had followed caste rules diligently — not once had she let him into her kitchen!
For the US, if copies of the Koran were really flushed down the toilet at Guantanamo, is it only a matter of concern to Muslims? Why apologize to the Muslims alone? Why not apologize to the whole world for this debasement of our values? Quite simply because then, we would have to answer for a lot more. But this is of a piece with the Bush Administration’s approach to most things. In an article in the latest issue of the American Conservative, Paul Schroeder has pointed out that the Bush approach to most problems is to make a big deal out of a smaller problem, often ridiculously unimportant by comparison, and ignore the real issue. In the pyramid of lies and evasions which are a part of our time, each absurdity is layered over with a more current one, drummed up by media cacaphony.
For the muslim countries, here’s a thought. Not one muslim nation (or any other) broke off relations with the US for its illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. So much for Ummah (the muslim diaspora) solidarity. If muslim countries are genuinely exercised over the reported desecration of the Koran, let them perform this simple act of protest — if you can’t sever diplomatic relations, at least recall your ambassadors from the US.
It would speak louder than a million cries of Allah-O-Akbar.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. His articles can be found on http://www.indogram.com/gramsabha/articles.