Desecrating Scriptures

A Case Study for the Luce Project in Religion, Media and International Relations


James W. Watts

Department of Religion

Syracuse University


Desecrations of books of scripture appear regularly in media coverage of religious and political conflicts. Twenty-first century new media have reported scripture desecrations in various Western, Middle Eastern, African, and South Asian countries. Though political tensions also arise from the desecration of sacred sites, objects, and persons, books of scripture have emerged as particularly potent objects of contestation. That is because, as a (very) old form of media themselves, scriptures encapsulate the religious experiences of many people who are used to handling the physical book with veneration. News of such a book’s desecration thus inverts a common religious experience and can arouse strong and widespread reactions.


This case study describes the effects of ritualizing books of scripture and compares their ritualization in four religious traditions in order to contextualize the phenomenon of desecrating scriptures cross-culturally and explain the political furors aroused by media coverage of particular incidents.


1. Iconic Books

2. Four Traditions of Iconic Scriptures

3. Scripture Desecrations in the News Media

4. Tensions within Traditions

5. Iconic Scriptures and the News Media


1. Iconic Books


People value books—and especially scriptures—for what they say, for the information they contain, and for their words; but the interpretation of scriptures is not what is at issue in stories of scripture desecrations. Some books—and especially scriptures—are also valued as scripts for performance, as texts to be read aloud and learned by heart; but the performance of scriptures is also not the issue here. Stories of scripture desecrations involve a third dimension of scriptures. Besides the meaning and sound of their words, scriptures are also valued as sacred objects, as icons, as material symbols of the religions that value them and of the divinity to which they provide access (Marty 1982; Parmenter 2006; Watts 2006).


This iconic dimension of scriptures involves their visual and material features. Books of scriptures function in ways similar to other sacred or symbolic objects, such as relics, amulets, and talismans. By “function,” I mean that people ritualize their interactions with books of scripture. They often carry them, or portions of them, on their persons. They cover them in special covers and store them on special shelves or in elaborate boxes. They distinguish them from common books by distinctive, often stereotyped, covers and bindings (e.g. the black leather Bible binding, the geometric decorations on a Qur’an cover) or even forms (the Torah scroll). They often observe special rules for handling scriptures. They sometimes tell of the spiritual power conveyed just by seeing the book or some of its verses, or by touching it, or by holding it close.


Rituals are means for concentrating attention. They are usually composed of very ordinary actions that are made extraordinary by the close attention that gets paid to where, when and how they get done (Smith 1987, 109). In this way, such everyday activities as entering and leaving a room, bathing, and eating get transformed into ceremonial processions, ritual baths, and sacred meals. In a similar way, religious traditions transform books into scriptures by ritualizing interactions with them in three dimensions. The routine activity of reading a book gets broken into its constituent parts—recognizing the object as a meaningful text (iconic dimension), transforming its letters into verbal or mental words (performative dimension), and interpreting the meaning of those words (semantic dimension)—and each dimension gets ritualized by elaborating traditions for how it should get done (Bell 1992, 72, 92; Watts 2006, 140-46).


Ritualizing the performative and especially the semantic dimensions often gets delegated to professionals (rabbis, priests, preachers, professors, cantors, musicians) or dedicated amateurs. That is because many religious communities consider a high degree of training essential to proper interpretation and performance. The iconic dimension of scriptures, however, can be manipulated by anyone who gains access to a copy of the book. Therefore, the iconic dimension is the most accessible of the three dimensions of scriptures. Many people own copies of scriptures and even more have access to copies, at least in recent centuries, when mechanized publishing has made scriptures both inexpensive and readily available. People frequently see scriptures, and they often hold, touch, and carry them, even if they do not have the education to read and interpret the words or even understand the language in which they are written. As a result, clerical hierarchies tend to have less control over how the iconic dimension of scriptures gets ritualized (Watts 2006, 154-55). The iconic dimension of scriptures provides lay people with a material manifestation of divinity that they can use for their own spiritual benefit. Ease of access also means that the iconic dimension is most easily attacked by deliberately mishandling the scripture. Such ritual abuse is called “desecration.”


Ritualizing the different dimensions of scriptures produces different kinds of social effects. While preaching and interpreting the semantic dimension negotiates authority, and performing scriptures in various media conveys inspiration, ritualizing the iconic dimension establishes legitimacy (Watts 2006, 148-50). That is most obvious in political oath rituals worldwide that employ books of scripture to inaugurate new office holders. The books are used to legitimize the transfer of power. In a much more thoroughgoing way, many religious communities display, handle, and manipulate scriptures to legitimize their place within their religious tradition. Clergy and scholars of many traditions commonly pose for portraits with the scripture in their hands. As a result, stereotypical images of their scriptures have become a visual short-hand for representing the religious traditions as a whole—a symbolism made even more prominent by online web “icons” in which the stereotyped book stands in for the religious community that cherishes it.


The legitimizing function of the iconic dimension of scripture explains not only religious communities’ investment in ritualizing it. It also explains the explosive social power of desecrating scriptures. Insofar as the scripture has become identified with the religion to the point that the tradition’s legitimacy is conveyed by manipulation of the material book, its ritual abuse can feel like an attempt to delegitimize the whole religious tradition. That threat to the tradition may be felt most strongly by lay people who cannot perform the more specialized ritualizations of oral performance and scholarly interpretation but who are accustomed to ritualizing the iconic dimension for themselves. They have the most personal experience and stake in ritualizing the iconic dimension of scriptures, and they may therefore take its ritual abuse most seriously. In summary, scripture desecration is deliberate ritualized abuse of the iconic dimension of scriptures that directly challenges the legitimacy of the religious tradition and may draw a defensive reaction especially from devout laity.


2. Four Traditions of Iconic Scriptures


These general observations about the consequences of ritualizing the iconic dimension of scriptures need to be qualified and nuanced by attention to the particular practices and traditions of different religious communities. The iconic dimension can be ritualized in different ways and to different degrees. Distinct histories and cultural influences have shaped how religions treat their books of scripture. Furthermore, the nature and degree of ritualization have varied over time and among different communities of the same larger tradition due to a variety of factors, including influence from other religions. Nevertheless, it will be worthwhile to sketch some broad patterns of practice within each of the four religions mentioned in the cases described below in order to highlight similarities as well as differences. This comparative exercise is important because tracing the development of ideas about sacred books in the various traditions should disabuse us from drawing a simplistic dichotomy between “superstitious” religious practices on the one hand and supposedly “rational” and “secular” treatment of books on the other.


Since recent media stories of scripture desecrations have highlighted the treatment of Qur’ans in particular, I will begin with Muslim traditions and practices. I will then compare them with the ritualization of iconic scriptures in Jewish and Sikh traditions. Since Western conceptions of books and scriptures have been shaped most by Christian tradition, I turn to that tradition last to investigate the precise origin of the contrast frequently made between non-Western and Western—or religious and secular—attitudes toward books.


(a) Muslim Traditions


The Qur’an consists of the revelations received by the Prophet Muhammed (ca. 570-632 C.E.). Muhammed heard these revelations orally over a period of many years and repeated them to his followers. Some of them wrote down what they heard. These texts, collected after Muhammed’s death, form the Qur’an. The original oral form of the scripture has continued to shape its reception in decisive ways: recitation of Qur’anic verses plays the central role in Muslim prayer and worship, and the mastery of traditions of recitation is a highly valued skill, surpassed only by the ability to recite the entire scripture from memory. In fact, the word Qur’an means “recitation.” As a result of the high value placed on reciting the revelations as Muhammed received them, the Qur’an is regarded as truly scripture only in the Arabic language, in which it was first recited and written. Translations into other languages serve educational purposes, but the Qur’an is considered truly valid only in Arabic. Many scholars maintain that the performative dimension expresses the essence of the Qur’an’s scriptural function (e.g. Graham 1987, 88-115). It is obvious, however, that scholarly interpretation of the Qur’an also plays a decisive role in establishing and maintaining religious authority in the various traditions of Islam, so ritualization of the semantic dimension of this scripture can hardly be denied.


Its iconic dimension has received less attention, but ritualizations of the Qur’an’s book form are nevertheless quite evident (Ayoub and Cornell, 2005). Most prominent are the highly developed traditions of calligraphy used to display Qur’anic verses artistically and, often, monumentally. This art of Arabic lettering blurs the distinction between the performative and iconic dimensions: Its striking visual forms make Qur’anic verses into easily recognizable icons even for those who cannot read Arabic, but its careful portrayal of the words of the scripture performs them in a visual rather than oral mode (Schimmel 2002, 109-110; Nasr 2002, 113-116). In fact, Muslim calligraphers often compare their art with that of oral recitation (Indian Muslims, June 25, 2007). More purely iconic ritualizations of the Qur’an appear in rules for handling the physical book to prevent its coming into contact with impurity. For example, the rules specify that one must wash before touching or opening a Qur’an and that other books must not be stacked on top of it. Many Muslim households use a small shelf or table to display an open Qur’an prominently. Many people carry small Qur’ans, or small texts inscribed with Qur’anic verses, as amulets. Gigantic monuments in the shape of an open Qur’an (such as those at Mecca and in Sharjah, UAE) also evidence its iconic form, as do Muslims who protest their scripture’s desecration by lifting Qur’ans over their heads.


(b) Jewish Traditions


Islam was not the first religious tradition in the Mediterranean world to become well known for ritualizing its scriptures in all three dimensions. That distinction probably belongs to the Jews. The Torah scroll has functioned as a symbol of Jewish identity since at least the second century B.C.E. The evidence for that claim lies in the fact that it was already being targeted for desecration and destruction by imperial forces trying to suppress Jewish political autonomy at that time (1 Maccabees 1:56-57).


The Torah consists of the first five books of the Jewish and Christian bibles. These books contain stories of Israel’s origins and, especially, the laws and instructions received by the prophet Moses. Jews accord the Torah the highest status among all their sacred books. That status is reflected by the attention given to interpreting its laws and stories, and even more by the central role the reading of the Torah in Hebrew plays in Jewish worship.


The Torah also takes a distinctive physical form. Jewish scriptures have two different forms depending on their intended use. For individual study, they are made in book (codex) form. The Hebrew text is marked with vowels, accents, and cantorial marks to aid study and comprehension, and may be accompanied by interpretive glosses and commentaries. In this form, the scriptures have also been translated into various vernacular languages since antiquity and have been printed for mass production since the 15th century. For public worship, however, Jewish scriptures still take the ancient form of scrolls of parchment containing hand-lettered Hebrew text without pronunciation aids or commentary. There are especially strict rules surrounding the production and use of Torah scrolls (Jaffee 2005). They are, as a result, very expensive; a new scroll written by a professional scribe costs more than $20,000. When synagogues are not using their Torah or other scrolls of scriptures, they keep them in a cabinet (“the ark”) that usually occupies a prominent position on the wall in front of the worshiping congregation. The congregation stands when the Torah is brought out of the ark. It is then carried to the worshipers, who touch the tassels of their prayer shawls first to it and then to their lips as a blessing. Readers are careful to avoid touching the sacred text with their hands, often using specially designed pointers to keep their place as they read. After being read, the open Torah scroll is displayed to the congregation. When stored in the ark, Torah scrolls are usually dressed in a mantle, crown, and breastplate reminiscent of those of the ancient Jewish high priest. People place parchment scraps containing hand-written verses of Torah in mezuzahs affixed to their homes and in phylacteries worn during prayers.


(c) Sikh Traditions


The Sikh scripture also occupies an exalted place at the center of worship (Nesbitt 2005). The Adi Granth contains hymns and prayers in several Indian languages, most composed by the ten Sikh gurus between the 15th and 17th centuries. In 1708, the tenth guru declared that from now on, the book of scripture would itself be the guru of the Sikhs. It is therefore commonly called “Guru Granth Sahib” and is treated in many ways like a living person. The recitation and singing of its verses are central to Sikh worship; the entire text is sometimes read aloud by multiple individuals within a 48-hour period. Sikhs produce and use translations of Guru Granth only for personal study; they do not employ them in public worship.


While Sikhs ritualize the Guru Granth’s semantic and performative dimensions to a considerable degree, they put particular emphasis on rituals involving its iconic dimension. The Guru Granth is written or printed in a script especially designed for its contents (Gurmukhi, used also for Punjabi). The book itself occupies the central place and focus of attention during services. Its physical presence is the sole criterion for designating a building or room as a Sikh place of worship. It is placed on pillows and fine cloths under a decorated canopy, and a fly whisk keeps cool breezes stirring over it. When its keepers move the Guru Granth, they usually carry it on their heads so that it retains the highest position of honor. If Sikh lay people have a copy of the scripture in their home, they should keep it in a separate room, open it every morning, and close it every evening.


(d) Christian Traditions


The Christian Bible consists of an “Old Testament” of (mostly) Hebrew texts inherited from Jewish tradition and a “New Testament” of Greek texts composed by first-century Christians. Virtually from the beginnings of Christianity, most Christians used even the Old Testament in Greek translation. In many periods, Christians have also been quick to translate their scriptures into other vernacular languages as well, so that the Bible is now the most widely translated text on the planet. In contrast to Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh practices, Christians use the original languages of their scripture only for scholarly study; with the exception of Greek Orthodox Churches that read the original Greek aloud, almost all other Christian traditions employ translations exclusively in public worship.


Biblical interpretation (the semantic dimension) plays a prominent role in Christian worship through preaching and also in the training of church ministers and priests. The Bible’s performative dimension also receives ritual expression in worship by public reading of scriptural texts and the singing of them in congregational hymns and choral anthems. It has also inspired a great deal of art depicting biblical scenes and dramas (and, more recently, films) enacting them. The physical Bible or Gospel book plays a prominent role in worship. In some traditions, it is the most prominent element in opening processions and is displayed to the congregation and kissed by readers. Other traditions emphasize every worshiper’s carrying and handling their own copies, modeled by ministers who preach with open Bibles in their hands. As a result, the leather-bound Bible with gilt-edged pages has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Christianity.


(e) Comparisons Among Traditions


Unlike Muslims, Jews and Sikhs, Christians do not usually follow clear instructions for handling and storing their Bibles. Though popular concerns for “proper” handling of scriptures are attested in various periods and places, they have not become normative in most Christian denominations. Since antiquity, many priests, ministers, and theologians have emphasized knowledge and observance of the semantic contents of the scriptures as more important than treatment of their physical form. The fact, however, that a similar emphasis on semantic meaning in other religious traditions co-exists with much greater reverence for the iconic dimension of their scripture’s texts indicates that other factors may be behind this difference between the religious traditions.


Comparison of the functions of scriptures in these four religions highlights a distinctive difference between the form of the Christian Bible and the scriptures of these other traditions. Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh scriptures all privilege the original languages and scripts of their scriptures for both their performance and writing. Though all three religions use translations for educational and missionary purposes, their public worship teniencreadily believe me books life applications." The most common expressions used in the teaching evaluations include "ised. services usually employ the original languages. As a result, they treat scriptures in the original languages and verses in the characteristic lettering of those languages with greater reverence than they do translations. Concern that the scriptures might be accidentally or intentionally desecrated usually revolves around scriptures in those languages and scripts. Christians, by contrast, have not usually privileged the original languages of their scripture except for purposes of scholarship. In worship, public performance of the Bible’s words and iconic display of its material form involve translations in many different languages. As a result, there is no common language and its recognizable sounds and no common text and its recognizable script to distinguish the Christian scriptures from other books and texts. Though the external binding may take stereotypical forms, the look and sound of the contents vary from culture to culture and denomination to denomination. In periods and places where a particular translation has become culturally entrenched, such as the Latin Bible of medieval Catholic Europe, iconic ritualization of its script could progress further (see, for example, the elaborate illumination of the letters of scripture in the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells) as did ritualization of its oral performance (in, for example, the monastic tradition of meditative scripture readings). In other times and places, and especially in modern Christianity, however, linguistic diversity reinforces among Christians the notion that the essential nature of the Bible lies in its semantic meaning alone.


(f) Conclusions


Comparison of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Sikh traditions shows that they ritualize their scriptures in similar ways in semantic, performative, and iconic dimensions. Differences among the scriptural practices of these traditions tend to be more a matter of degree than of kind. A notable exception is Christianity’s tendency to ritualize the iconic dimension of the Bible’s codex-book form but not so much its script because of the diversity of languages in which it appears. That linguistic diversity seems to have constrained tendencies to develop ritual rules for handling biblical texts.


This observation serves as a warning against assuming too quickly that Western book practices derive from secularization. European and American observers who find Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh concerns for their physical books of scripture strange are in fact unconsciously reflecting their own Christian heritage. Typical Western valuation of the contents of a book over its form thus reflects a particular religious heritage more than a secular rejection of religious values. 


3. Scripture Desecrations in News Media (1998-2008)


This theoretical and comparative background provides a framework for understanding incidents of scripture desecration and the consequences of news stories about them. Several stories of intentional desecration of Qur’ans have received widespread media coverage, often followed by apparently deep political consequences. Other accounts of scripture desecrations of Qur’ans, as well as of Jewish, Christian, and Sikh scriptures, seem to have had more limited impacts. Comparison of the different treatment accorded to similar incidents shows the common features and important variables surrounding the phenomenon, including differences in religious tradition, political context, and media interest.


(a) Qur’ans and the American Military


The most famous report of scripture desecrations in the last decade appeared in 2005 (see the helpful summary “Qur’an desecration controversy of 2005” in Wikipedia). In a one-paragraph article in its May 2nd issue, Newsweek reported that guards at the U.S. detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had desecrated a Qur’an by flushing it down a toilet. It based that claim on a draft of an official government report that an anonymous source claimed to have read. One week later, the story was publicized in a news conference by a well-known member of the Pakistani parliament, Imran Khan, and widely reported in other media sources. Street protests then erupted around the world. In many places, protestors carried and waved Qur’ans as they bitterly denounced its desecration. In Afghanistan, the protests turned violent, resulting in the deaths of 17 people (The New Yorker, May 30, 2005; see also BBC, May 12, 2005).


In its May 16th issue, Newsweek retracted the story because its source was unable to confirm where he had seen the information. But the lead reporter, Michael Isikoff, admitted that the magazine was also surprised by the political fallout: “The big point that leaps out is the cultural one. Neither Newsweek nor the Pentagon foresaw that a reference to the desecration of the Koran was going to create the kind of response that it did. … They were as caught off guard by the furor as we were. We obviously blame ourselves for not understanding the potential ramifications.” (The New York Times, May 17, 2005)


Others knew better the visceral response that a charge of Qur’an desecration by the U.S. guards at Guantánamo would evoke in the Muslim world. Muqtedar Khan, a political scientist at Adrian College in Michigan, told the Associated Press: “I think there is clearly a political dimension of what’s happening there. ... It is very easy to mobilize Muslims on this issue. By the end of the month, there is going to be a global protest” (AP, May 17, 2005). Sure enough, two weeks later, “Thousands of Muslims marched Friday in Islamic countries from Asia to the Middle East, burning symbols of America to protest the alleged desecration of the Quran by military personnel at a U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba” (AP, May 27, 2005).


These events focused critical attention on the U.S. government and its practices at Guantánamo and other detention facilities. The Pentagon released a report by the end of May 2005 that admitted five instances of guards misusing Qur’ans. It claimed that all had occurred prior to 2003, when standard procedures were issued for the Guantánamo detention facility regarding “the handling and inspecting of detainee Korans.” The intent of the procedures was “to ensure the safety of the detainees and MPs while respecting the cultural dignity of the Korans, thereby reducing the friction over the searching of the Korans.” The procedures stipulated that “personnel directly working with detainees will avoid handling or touching the detainee’s Koran whenever possible. When military necessity does require the Koran to be searched, the subsequent procedures will be followed” (US Embassy, May 25, 2005). However, complaints about mistreatment of Qur’ans at Guantánamo continued to emerge in reports from the International Red Cross, the FBI, and others in the following months, prompting ongoing media discussion of the investigations. The continuing cycle of charges and denials did not leave room for verbal apologies, much less any form of ritual rectification.


There have been other occasions when the U.S. military has been accused of desecrating Qur’ans as well. Complaints about damage to mosques from military operations frequently focus on the Qur’ans contained in those mosques. For example, already in 1998 the BBC reported that after a missile attack on Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan that resulted only in light damage, “local people were nevertheless angry that mosques had been hit and copies of the Koran destroyed in the resulting fires” (BBC, September 5, 1998). In Iraq, such accusations could bring together rival factions. Iraqi Shiites marched and waved copies of the Qur’an in Fallujah in 2004 to protest a raid by U.S. troops on the main Sunni mosque that resulted in the destruction of some copies of the Qur’an (AP, February 27, 2004).


In May 2008, on a firing range used by U.S. soldiers, Afghans discovered a Qur’an riddled with bullet holes, a target drawn on its cover and an expletive written inside. This discovery forced “the chief U.S. commander in Baghdad to issue a formal apology.” A U.S. officer kissed a Qur’an and presented it to Afghan leaders during the ceremony. The offending soldier was transferred out of the country. This did not quell all expressions of outrage: “Sheikh Hamadi al-Qirtani, in a speech on behalf of all tribal sheiks of Radhwaniya, called the incident ‘aggression against the entire Islamic world.’ The Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq also condemned the shooter's actions and the U.S. military’s belated acknowledgment of the incident” (CNN, May 19, 2008). Unlike three years earlier, however, the complaints did not escalate into widespread international protests. That difference suggests that the fulsome and ceremonial apology calmed the outrage. Since desecration of scriptures involves ritual action (as defined above), an apology works best if it takes ritual as well as verbal form, as in this case.


(b) Interreligious and Intercommunal Conflicts


Though U.S. military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan has drawn attention to reports of Americans mistreating Qur’ans, the phenomenon of scripture desecration is more widespread and multifaceted than a simplistic Western vs. Muslim dichotomy might suggest. The following stories demonstrate the role of scripture desecrations in various interreligious and intercommunal conflicts in the past decade. In these cases, public ritual desecration of scriptures has been used intentionally to fuel conflicts between competing groups.


When the Taliban government of Afghanistan allowed giant ancient statues of the Buddha to be destroyed in March 2001, mass protests erupted, especially in India and Southeast Asia. Some Hindu militants used the occasion to attack Islam by publicly burning Qur’ans (BBC, March 11, 2001). That action prompted a reaction in several parts of India, including Muslim-majority Kashmir: “The unrest began with a crowd of some 2,000 people staging a procession to protest against copies of the Koran allegedly being burnt by Hindu hardliners. … In the ensuing disturbances, a deserted Hindu temple was set on fire, and more than two dozen government and private vehicles were damaged” (BBC, March 24, 2001). The tit-for-tat attacks on statues, then scriptures, then temples show that their equivalent status as sacred objects was recognized by all sides in this conflict.


Accusations of, and even calls for, desecrating physical copies of scriptures have become highly publicized features of interreligious conflict. In tribal areas of Orissa, India, anti-Christian attacks are likely to target Bibles among other things. Active missionizing of indigenous tribal peoples by both Christians and Hindus over the last half century has turned intertribal conflicts into interreligious ones. Recently, six weeks of violence included many reports of Christians being forced to convert in ceremonies that included burning “their Bibles, hymnals and ... images of Christ” (The New York Times, October 12, 2008).


Resentment against Christian missionary activity also produced attacks on New Testaments in Israel. In May 2008, the deputy mayor of Or-Yehuda in Israel collected several hundred New Testaments that had been distributed by missionaries. They were then burned by Yeshiva students. Leaders of Messianic (Christian) Jewish groups asked for prosecution under Israeli laws forbidding “desecration of any religious icon or item that a group holds sacred” and prohibiting public speech offensive to a certain religion (CNN, May 22, 2008).


Vandalism against Jewish synagogues very often targets their Torah scrolls. Just in 2008, scrolls were damaged or stolen during the vandalism of synagogues in Jerusalem (Jerusalem Post, August 4, 2008), Miami Beach (MSNBC, April 23, 2008), and Yorktown, New York (WCBSTV, May 4, 2008). In Hebron, Israel, Jewish settler groups claimed that Muslims had urinated near a Torah Ark in the shrine of the Cave of the Patriarchs (WorldNetDaily, September 7, 2008), though local police could find no evidence to substantiate the charge (Jerusalem Post, September 9, 2008). The nature and number of these incidents do not seem exceptional: See, for example, earlier incidents in Paris (AP, May 24, 1995) and Brooklyn (New York Times, September 18, 1988).


Children sometimes imitate the public scripture desecrations they hear publicized in news media. In December 2006, three Muslim boys were expelled from an Islamic school in Melbourne, Australia, for urinating on and burning a Christian Bible. The Australian reported that “The explosive incident has forced the East Preston Islamic College to call in a senior imam to tell its 650 Muslim students that the Bible and Christianity must be respected” (Australian, December 6, 2006).


When acts of scripture desecration feature frequently in religious and communal conflicts, people readily believe charges of fresh incidents. The charge of desecrating the Qur’an has been extended to the erasure or overwriting by “scribbled lines” of a few Qur’anic verses on the wall of a nursing school in Pakistan. As a result, “dozens of female students of a hardline Islamist seminary stormed the nursing hostel” (AFP, June 3, 2007). The school’s principal and four Christian students were temporarily suspended pending a government investigation. The seminary students’ actions were part of a larger campaign against “vice” in Islamabad that included occupation of a government-run children’s library.


In Nigeria, charges of Qur’an desecration have produced deadly results. The BBC reported in March 2007:

Secondary school pupils in north-eastern Nigeria have killed a teacher after apparently accusing her of desecrating the Koran, police say. The teacher, a Christian, was attacked after supervising an exam in Gombe city. It is not clear what she had done to anger the students. ... Last year, in Bauchi State, a rumour swept the city that a Christian teacher had also desecrated the Koran, which prompted riots in which at least five people were killed. In fact, the teacher had confiscated the Koran from a pupil who was reading it in class. Religious differences have long been used to justify all kinds of violence in Nigeria, our reporter says. In reality it is often fueled by ethnic or political conflicts and competition for resources, which can be fierce given that so many people live in poverty, he says. (BBC, March 21, 2007)  

The social power of scripture desecration—and of charges of scripture desecration—is thus widely recognized and sometimes utilized in many cultures around the world.


(c) Intrareligious/Intracommunal Conflicts


Intentional acts of scripture desecration and charges in the media against others for desecrating scriptures do not just arise in conflicts between nations and religions. They also appear within various religious communities where they mediate individual and intracommunal conflicts.


Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws make the charge of desecrating a Qur’an particularly dangerous there. In one case, a man in Lahore apparently framed another for burning a Qur’an in order to buy his property at half price (Daily Times, July 9, 2007). In another case, a Christian man was jailed without bail for burning a Qur’an. He confessed but claimed to have done it as a ritual act aimed at getting his estranged wife to come back to him. He also claimed insanity (Daily Times, July 12, 2007). The seriousness of these charges is illustrated by stories about people beaten after speaking ill of Muhammed, Islam, or the Qur’an and then being arrested while their attackers go free. Some religious and political leaders have called for the death penalty for blasphemers, and mobs and jailors occasionally carry it out (Daily Times, April 21, 2005; September 20, 2005; March 16, 2006; June 22, 2007). Many of these cases seem to have originated in marital or business disputes. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has been protesting these laws for years (Daily Times, August 27, 2003; June 1, 2007), as have Pakistani Christians (Daily Times, May 6, 2005), but apparently with little success.


In the Indian state of Punjab, a simmering conflict involving class, caste, and claims of leadership within the Sikh community gets expressed occasionally in desecrations and charges of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib. The conflict involves, among other things, debates over whether any living human can aspire to be a successor to the original ten gurus, thus competing with the Guru Granth, and whether other religious movements should be allowed to use Sikh symbols and scriptures. (For an analysis of the social as well as religious issues behind the conflict, see the article by Ajay Bharadwaj in DNA, May 24, 2007). Frontline magazine summarized one series of events this way:

In 2001, Dalit godman Piara Singh Bhaniarawala set off riots by releasing the Bhavsagar Granth, a 2,704-page religious text suffused with sakhis, or miracle stories, extolling his spiritual powers. According to the godman, the Bhavsagar Granth was written after upper-caste Sikhs in a neighbouring home refused to allow the display of the gurdwara’s Guru Granth Sahib in a Dalit home. When Sikh neoconservatives burned copies of the Bhavsagar Granth, Bhaniarawala’s followers retaliated by setting alight Birs, or copies of the Guru Granth Sahib. SGPC President Jagdev Singh Talwandi insisted that Piara Singh be booked for murder, claiming that the Guru Granth Sahib is a ‘living guru’. Punjab’s government balked at this measure but did prosecute Bhaniarawala for inciting communal hatred. (Frontline, June 2-15, 2007)

In another leadership fight, Sikh authorities in Rajasthan, India, tried to pass legislation that would grant legal monopolies for the printing of copies of the Guru Granth Sahib. This effort was ostensibly an attempt to guard the scripture from profanation or desecration, but it also aimed to disempower rivals who support independent publishing houses (Panthic Weekly, August 1, 2007). Two months later, activists kidnapped and publicly humiliated two men working for an independent publisher (Chandigarh Tribune, October 6, 2007).


In Iran, an attempt to displace Vice President Esfandyar Rahim Mashaie included charges that “girls danced with the Koran during a ceremony” staged by an organization for the promotion of tourism. Apparently, a traditional procession that brings the Qur’an on a tray to the reader at the beginning of a ceremony was, in this case, conducted by “a dozen dancing girls clad in traditional clothes” (AFP, November 16, 2008). The news report was quick to point out, however, that Mashaie had recently provoked controversy by advocating warming relations with Israel. The charge of “insulting the Qur’an” seems therefore to have been a tactical maneuver in an ongoing struggle over government policy.


These stories show that people at various levels of society sometimes wield charges of scripture desecration for personal or political gain. Charges of venerating the wrong scripture can also be employed in this way. For example, when Pope John Paul II in 1999 received a Qur’an as a gift from a delegation of Muslim clerics and kissed it in a traditional Christian and Muslim act of veneration, traditionalist Catholics cited this event as proof that the pope had betrayed the Christian faith. The charge continues to be repeated on traditionalist blogs (Today’s Catholic World, December 2, 2005; Traditio, December 2006).


(d) Scripture Desecration in the West


 As this last story shows, charges of scripture desecration also show up in Europe and the United States, though with notably less effect on public opinion. The motives behind such acts seem to range from media blunders to symbolic acts of political and religious protest. In Europe and North America, however, these incidents tend also to prompt heated debates over whether such acts qualify for the legal protections under the right to freedom of speech.


The image of a burning Bible appeared multiple times on German TV in July 2007 in a documentary about Christian fundamentalism. The German print media, led by a report headlined “TV-Skandal!” in a glossy magazine, drew attention to it by asking several political and church leaders if one is allowed to burn Bibles. The responses were predictably critical. One commented on how much greater the negative reaction would be if it had been a Qur’an: “What would happen in Germany if the ARD network had shown a burning Qur’an?” Another wondered what Muslims must think of Westerners, whom they all regard as Christians, burning their own Bible (Bild, July 14, 2007). Though the writers and producers insisted that they had intended the image to represent the fire of faith and of the Word, public pressure forced the network to withdraw the documentary and promise to rework it.


Around the same time in the U.S., a former student was arrested on hate-crime charges for throwing two Qur’ans in public toilets at Pace University. The story generated charges of hypocrisy from many quarters, because similar acts by artists using Christian symbols had been defended on free-speech grounds. In the end, the man pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct and was sentenced to community service (AP, March 3, 2008).


Rather less attention was given to news that artist Charles Merrill burned a rare and valuable Qur’an. He had previously marked and cut up a Bible. He called his deliberate desecrations of the scriptures of two different religions symbolic acts of protest: “The purpose of editing and burning Abrahamic Holy Books is to eliminate homophobic hate” (PRNewswire, July 26, 2007).


The countervailing influence of free-speech commitments over desecration concerns in the media coverage of these last two stories might seem to represent a secularizing influence. But free speech concerns are themselves deeply rooted in religious history. The Western ideal of free speech grew from harsh experience of its absence in the early modern wars of religion in Europe and the suppression of one Christian denomination by another in the American colonies. Thus both in emphasizing the semantic contents of books over their material form and the right to free expression, Western cultural values continue to reflect important strands of Christian religious heritage and history.


4. Tensions within Traditions


The above stories of conflicts within religions and communities show very clearly the social power involved in the use and abuse of an iconic book. From power struggles in the higher ranks of the Iranian government and of the Sikh religious hierarchy to marital disputes and conflicts over property ownership between Pakistani individuals, charges of insulting or desecrating a book of scripture can shift the balance of power, sometimes decisively. The stories reveal widespread awareness of that power among people in various societies and a willingness by some people to use it against co-religionists. It is very easy to level a charge of desecration or insult and very difficult to disprove it.


These stories confirm how much more difficult it is for political or religious authorities to control the iconic dimension of scriptures than it is for them to control the other dimensions. Scholars and clergy traditionally dominate interpretation of the textual dimension of the Qur’an, Torah, Guru Granth, and Bible. Debates over doctrine and orthodoxy, the semantic dimension, therefore tend to remain under the control of a few rival elites, even if they recruit popular sentiment to their cause. A broader range of people tend to be involved in scriptural performances, but even then recitations and readings tend to follow traditions—and sometimes even strict rules—of performance. The iconic dimension, however, can be manipulated by whomever has access to a copy of the text, whether to honor a scripture or to desecrate it or to frame a rival or to gain economic advantage or, as in the case of the hapless husband mentioned above, to try to harness its iconic power for personal ends. That story, if accurate, shows private (esoteric) use of a book coming into conflict with the same text’s public (exoteric) veneration. Rules for handling scriptures attempt to control the iconic dimension and mostly succeed in public worship settings. But the mass production of scriptures by modern print technology has made most of them readily available to many people, whose private use of them is not easily regulated by laws or social pressures.


The iconic dimension of scriptures produces, within each of these four religious traditions, a tension between protecting the physical scripture from desecration on the one hand and distributing it widely for educational and missionary purposes on the other. The four religions have handled this tension in different ways. Due to strong missionary impulses, Muslims and Christians have generally preferred to distribute their scriptures widely despite the risks of mishandling. Sikhs also desire to spread knowledge of the Guru Granth, but the ritual requirements for handling the scripture have constrained its distribution. A Sikh layman confided to an acquaintance of mine that he does not own a copy himself. “You have to do something several times a day with that book, which is entirely too much trouble,” he said. The Jewish Torah scroll is also restricted mostly to synagogues due to both ritual requirements and its price. The Torah in book form, however, is widely distributed either separately or as part of the larger Jewish Bible and in both Hebrew and vernacular translations. The two forms taken by the Torah thus allow simultaneously for its ritual restriction and its widespread publication.


Nevertheless, the consequence in all four traditions of ritualizing the iconic dimension of scripture is that whoever comes into contact with a copy of scripture has the power to venerate or desecrate it. The news stories surveyed above reveal great awareness of this possibility among the people involved in these incidents. The fact that lay people have greater control over the iconic dimension of scriptures than over the other dimensions may explain why so many people have a great emotional stake in how the scripture is treated. Charges of scripture desecration appeal directly to popular sentiment based in personal experience. Though often voiced by members of religious and political hierarchies, the charges carry an inherent populist force grounded in the nature of scripture’s iconic dimension. Unlike the subtleties of doctrine or performance, which require considerable education and experience to understand, anyone can venerate or desecrate the scripture. Most people who venerate a scripture fear accidentally desecrating it instead. The charge of intentional scripture desecration therefore arouses a visceral response in them.


A book of scripture combines two qualities otherwise rarely found together in these four religious traditions: On the one hand, it is a (more or less) readily available material object and, on the other hand, it offers incomparable access to divinity (in one way or another). Scriptures therefore become the focal object of very many people’s religious aspirations. They view an attack on scriptures as an attack on themselves, on their religion, and on their god. As a result, as Cordell Waldron observed, “violence against books is understood by all parties involved as being comparable to violence against people and/or ideas and ... violence against a book can quickly lead to other forms of conflict” (Iconic Books Blog, May 28, 2008).


5. Iconic Scriptures in the News Media


All the accounts of scripture desecrations surveyed above share another common characteristic: They became news stories. They were publicized by broadcast and print media and amplified by the worldwide reach of the Internet. (It is the latter that also makes comparative case studies of the phenomenon like this one possible.) Though practices and charges of scripture desecration are age-old, the rapid dissemination of such stories today by modern media often amplifies and changes their effects. In some cases, the acts of desecration and, in many cases, the charges of desecration were intended to generate media coverage from the start.


Scriptures are themselves a form of media. Newspaper, television, and web stories about them involve an interaction between modern media and older practices, not just of print media but of calligraphy, liturgy, and oral performance as well. Scriptures’ iconic dimension, however, presents an especially compelling image for the vast number of people who are not expert interpreters or performers of the scriptures. Stories about scripture desecrations therefore offer news outlets an opportunity to tap into a pre-packaged set of images, sounds, associations, and feelings almost guaranteed to draw the attention of many people. That raises the possibility that journalistic opportunism has prompted the heavy publicity that some of these stories have received. As a result, serious consideration has and should be given to the degree to which journalism itself becomes a contributing factor in these incidents and their consequences. The dramatic ramifications of the Guantánamo affair focused critical attention on Newsweek in particular but also on the role played by other news sources and by politicians’ manipulations of news sources (The New Yorker, May 30, 2005).


However, the broader (frequently, worldwide) reach of modern media raises the different question of whether media coverage is changing the nature and significance of the iconic dimension of the scriptures itself. That is, does publicity about scripture desecration influence how communities and religious traditions regard their own scriptures? And does such publicity change how they regard the scriptures of other traditions? The answer to both questions seems to be “yes.”


Within many religious communities, a charge of scripture desecration has probably been a powerful weapon in interpersonal and political conflicts for a very long time. The stories about using the charge in marital and property conflicts in Pakistan and intercommunal conflicts in Nigeria reflect its potency for gathering a mob or for influencing legal authorities. In these cases, the work of local “old media” was sufficient to bring about results. Wider broadcast of the situation does not seem to have strengthened the charges. If anything, sympathizers for the accused may have hoped that media publicity would mobilize help for them.


In other casessuch as the Hindu militants burning Qur’ans in front of photographers and the charge against the Iranian vice president of insulting the Qur’an and the books being burned in the Punjabi Sikh power strugglesthe actors clearly intended for news media to publicize their actions and their charges in order to sharpen their attack and inflame public opinion. In such cases, modern news media’s involvement may generate more public focus on scriptures’ iconic dimension, because that is the dimension most easily manipulated to generate a broad popular response. The media then become complicit in these conflicts.


The fact that many news stories do reach people of a wide variety of religious traditions and cultures means, however, that coverage of one scripture may also be influencing attitudes toward others. The Western media’s attention to Qur’an desecrations over the last decade has clearly heightened some people’s sensibilities about the Christian Bible. That was obviously true in the case of the burning Bible on German TV, which was an entirely media-generated event. It was a TV documentary that used the image in the first place, and it was print media sources who first raised the possibility of scandal. They then sought comment from Christian leaders, many of whom made comparisons with hypothetical media treatments of Qur’ans. The whole incident seems to have been created by news media in conscious comparison with stories of scripture desecration from other cultures and religious traditions.


Nevertheless, such comparisons get made easily in religiously pluralistic cultures. Not only the news media, but also governments try to apply one standard to the treatment of all kinds of scriptures. Thus laws in countries as different as Israel and India mandate respectful treatment of all religious scriptures. The absence of such legislation in Western “Christian” countries elicits surprise elsewhere. Few understand that the absence of such laws has more to do with the distinctive characteristics of the Christian scriptures as translated texts and the free-speech ideals generated by inner-Christian conflicts than with the secularism of Western societies.


Thus one consequence of media coverage of scripture desecration stories has been to heighten concern for the iconic veneration of scriptures in various cultures and religious traditions, including those of Europe and North America. As a result of such stories, I expect that people’s sensitivities to how their own scriptures are being treated will continue to rise. Attention to desecrations of one tradition’s scriptures brings increased attention to similar acts in other traditions. That is not surprising: The iconic ritualization of a book of scripture is not static even within an ancient religious tradition. It constantly changes, just as ritualizations of the other dimensions do. The prevalence of modern news media means that iconic scriptures provide convenient tools for both giving offense and taking offense, and today’s politics give many people reasons to do both.



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