Lost History: The February 2002 Koran Incident at Gitmo

The stories of guards and interrogators flushing, stuffing, or dumping Korans in toilets may remain frozen between allegation and denial forever. However, there is another instance of alleged Koran mishandling that has been far better substantiated. As reported by the press in February and March 2002, it does not sound nearly as damning as the alleged toilet incident – although former detainees may disagree. At any rate, it does raise an interesting question for us today: Why has the mainstream media and the Pentagon virtually ignored the 2002 incident as a potential source for much of the current tension surrounding the treatment of the holy book?

The trackback begins with a recent Washington Post article in which Robin Wright describes strict rules for handling the Koran that the Pentagon insists have been in place for more than two years – that is, since before May 2003. Indeed, as quoted by Wright, the policy sounds quite enlightened. It is very specific in directing personnel to handle the Koran in ways that signal care, respect, and reverence. It even specifies that the Koran should not be placed near toilets. (Wright, "U.S. Long Had Memo on Handling of Koran," Washington Post, May 17, 2005.)

What seems peculiar is that such a specific policy should emerge out of the blue a year after detainees began arriving at the camp. And, in fact, it did not emerge out of the blue – but followed at least one well-documented incident in which a Koran was mishandled.

Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald reported on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2002, that a protest had begun at Guantanamo the previous Friday: "Friday’s episode occurred when a detainee thought an MP kicked a Koran, said army Lt. Col. Bill Costello. ‘One started shouting Allahu Akbar. So other detainees started shouting Allahu Akbar.’" (Carol Rosenberg, Knight Ridder, "Detainees Test Guards: Chants Follow Perceived Slight to Koran by an MP," The Gazette (Montreal), Feb. 24, 2002.]

Other permutations of the story asserted that the MP had indeed kicked the holy book, but mistakenly, during a surprise inspection – or had simply picked it up and dropped it. (Carol Rosenberg, Knight Ridder, "Detainees at Gitmo Refusing to Eat," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 1, 2002; Andres Leighton, "Tension Rises at Prison Camp," Associated Press, March 2, 2002.)

Tensions continued to build through the next week, culminating in a camp-wide hunger strike when a guard interrupted a detainee in prayer in order to forcibly remove the prisoner’s makeshift turban. (While praying, the prisoner would not respond to verbal demands).

The hunger strike began on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2002. In addition, on Thursday, prisoners began to throw their gear over the camp’s fence. This prompted the commander of the camp, Marine Gen. Michael Lehnert, to address the prisoners and make some concessions. As reported by John Mintz of the Washington Post,

"’The general told them they would be allowed to fashion the headdress but that we will still inspect them,’ said Marine Maj. Stephen Cox, a camp spokesman. ‘He said their religion would be respected, and we understand the sacred nature of the Koran.’" ("Detainees’ Protest Wins U.S. Reversal; Cuba Inmates May Fashion Turbans," Washington Post, March 1, 2002.)

This incident has not disappeared entirely from the collective memory, but it has transmuted in an interesting way. Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig recalls it in a recent story, but relegates it and the entire hunger strike to the realm of allegation. Leonnig writes:

"James Yee, a former Muslim chaplain at the prison who was investigated and cleared of charges of mishandling classified material, has asserted that guards’ mishandling and mistreatment of detainees’ Korans led the prisoners to launch a hunger strike in March 2002. Detainee lawyers, attributing their information to an interrogator, have said the strike ended only when military leaders issued an apology to the detainees over the camp loudspeaker." (Carol D. Leonnig, "Desecration of Koran Had Been Reported Before, Washington Post, May 18, 2005.)

And so, the corroborating press accounts from 2002 are gone, as are the confirming quotes by majors, colonels, and generals – to be replaced by the allegations of detainee lawyers and a besmirched former Muslim chaplain.

*Calgacus has been employed as a researcher in the national security field for 20 years.