CAIRO, Egypt, May 16, 2005 -- Newsweek magazine may have apologized, but to many in the Muslim world, it's too late and much too little.
Muslims brushed off an apology to readers that appeared in this week's edition of the newsweekly that acknowledged errors in a story alleging U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Koran, Islam's holy book. Interestingly enough, Newsweek has an Arabic issue but there was no mention of the apology in this week's issue. Critics called it a strategic move in the face of the overwhelming and violent reaction. The report sparked protests in Afghanistan, where at least 15 were killed and more than 100 injured.
Newsweek later retracted the story entirely.
Many Muslims believe Newsweek succumbed to pressure from the U.S. government to backtrack. Many believe that that whatever the truth may be, the harm has been done.
Saudi Arabia was the first country to officially react by asking for an investigation. It was followed by blanket condemnation and demands for investigation from all over the region by officially appointed mainstream clerics or governments.
In Egypt, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the highest Sunni authority in the world, usually a subdued man, demanded immediate action. "The Koran's desecration is a great crime and should be dealt with at once," he said.
Reaction to the Newsweek article, which appeared in the May 9 issue, has been particularly virulent for a number of reasons.
In the Muslim world, Guantanamo has become the symbol of the confrontation between Islam and the United States. The fact that this allegedly happened in Guantanamo makes things much worse. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood said perhaps if it had happened somewhere else, it would not have resonated so much.
Secondly, the Koran is part of the Muslim identity. By desecrating the Koran, one is desecrating the identity of all Muslims. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, desecration of the Koran is punishable by death, which explains the more violent reaction to the Newsweek story.
Many analysts believe this episode will just increase the level of distrust. The Arab world, especially the Middle East, is more likely to believe such reports after the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
Moreover, many believe that a soldier or interrogator would not act without his or her superior's approval and say this episode is yet another reminder that the United States is at war against Islam.
One moderate cleric said, "The U.S. keeps on handing out reasons for extremists to become more ferocious. These stories are amazing recruiting tools, and more young people will now join the fight."
The story has offended many non-Arab Muslims, too. In Malaysia and in Nigeria, protesters chanted anti-American slogans and in Tajikistan, a Central Asian country abutting Afghanistan, a group of 300 clerics wrote a statement saying that, "if an investigation does not happen within three days, we will launch a jihad against America."
The so-called Jihadi Web sites are also full of calls for more killings of Americans.