Newsweek magazine apologized for a story alleging the Quran was desecrated at a U.S. military base in Cuba, but not before the report sparked rioting in the Muslim world.
The report that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo prison had placed the Quran on toilet seats, and even flushed one, was blamed for rioting in Afghanistan, where at least 15 were killed and 100 injured.
An item in the magazine May 9 quoted a senior U.S. government official saying an upcoming U.S. Southern Command investigation into the abuse of prisoners found that Gitmo interrogators had flushed a Quran down a toilet in an attempt to rattle detainees.
But in its May 23 issue, the magazine said parts of the original story may have been wrong.
After the rioting began last week, the Pentagon attempted to determine the veracity of the Newsweek story.
On Friday night, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita called Newsweek to complain about the original item. “We pursue all credible allegations” of prisoner abuse, he said, but insisted that the investigators had found none involving Quran desecration.
On Saturday, investigative reporter Michael Isikoff spoke to his original source, who said that he clearly recalled reading investigative reports about mishandling the Quran, including a toilet incident. But the official, still speaking anonymously, could no longer be sure that these concerns had surfaced in the SouthCom report.
Reaction to the Newsweek report was especially strong because Guantanamo is viewed in the Muslim world as a symbol of the confrontation between Islam and the U.S., and because the Quran is seen as a part of Muslim identity. In Pakistan and Afghanistan desecration of the Quran is punishable by death.
“We can understand torturing prisoners, no matter how repulsive,” Muhammad Archad, a computer teacher in Peshawar, Pakistan, told Newsweek. “But insulting the Quran is like deliberately torturing all Muslims. This we cannot tolerate.”
An editor’s note explained that before reporting the item the magazine approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment. “One declined to give us a response,” said Editor Mark Whitaker. “The other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Quran charge.”
“We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst,” Whitaker wrote in the apology.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Senate subcommittee the United States will not condone incivility to the Quran or any other sacred religious book. “Disrespect for the Holy Quran is not now, nor has it ever been, nor will it ever be, tolerated by the United States,” Rice said.
A Reuters report on Monday said Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan were skeptical about the apparent retraction, attributing it to pressure by the U.S. ABC News summarized Muslim reaction to the apology as “too little, too late.”
On Monday Rice said the report has “done of lot of harm” to U.S. outreach in the Muslim world and called it “appalling” that the story went out.