Newsweek tells its own story

The magazine's blunder was a big one, and any argument in its own defense merits some skepticism. But it's spot on about the greater backdrop for the Islamic world's violent reaction.

Published May 18, 2005 8:26PM (EDT)

Newsweek follows up with its own play-by-play of what went wrong with the Quran-abuse story. The magazine's blunder was a big one, and any argument in its own defense merits some skepticism. But staffer Evan Thomas gets it right in his assessment of the greater backdrop for the Islamic world's violent reaction. Though the Bush White House is plenty eager to make Newsweek (rather than its own foreign policy) responsible for the flames of anti-Americanism burning around the globe, the magazine's reporting debacle was more akin to a fresh piece of tinder tossed on a smoldering bonfire.

"The Newsweek report arrived at a particularly delicate moment in Afghan politics," writes Thomas. Militant Islamic clerics in Pakistan and Afghanistan quickly seized upon the piece, he notes, using it to incite the faithful. "Opponents of the Karzai government, including remnants of the deposed Taliban regime, have been looking for ways to exploit public discontent."

And does U.S. post-invasion policy bear any blame for that discontent? Most Americans are aware of just how well the reconstruction job has gone in Iraq -- after all, a lot of our uniformed men and women are still camped out there in harm's way -- but a still seriously shaky Afghanistan is more a land of the forgotten: "The Afghan economy is weak, and the government (pressed by the United States) has alienated farmers by trying to eradicate their poppy crops, used to make heroin in the global drug trade. Afghan men are sometimes rounded up during ongoing U.S. military operations, and innocents can sit in jail for months. When they are released, many complain of abuse. President Karzai is still largely respected, but many Afghans regard him as too dependent on and too obsequious to the United States. With Karzai scheduled to come to Washington next week, this is a good time for his enemies to make trouble."

While abusing the Quran wouldn't legally qualify as torture, one astonishing quote from the Newsweek follow-up shows just how strategically out of touch U.S. interrogators have been in terms of winning the war of ideas, if they did in fact do it. (And anyone who argues that the Newsweek debacle means case closed on allegations at Gitmo, that they're nothing more than the lies of Islamic militants, is kidding themselves.) "We can understand torturing prisoners, no matter how repulsive," said a computer teacher Muhammad Archad, who was interviewed last week by Newsweek in Peshawar, Pakistan, where one of the protests took place. "But insulting the Quran is like deliberately torturing all Muslims. This we cannot tolerate."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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Afghanistan Al-qaida Guantanamo Iraq War Islam Pakistan Religion Torture War Room