Whatever prompted US troops in Afghanistan to carelessly combine a few Qurans with regular garbage, and throw them into a burn pit outside a jail, can only be guessed at. Perhaps, as some have reported, the troops were confused with the holy books because they contained inflammatory rhetoric. Or, it was a gross but very unintended, simple oversight. Just a simple error, no disrespect intended. After ten years in the Middle East fighting the Taliban, US troops should have been better educated and more aware about the importance of the consequences of disrespect towards the holy books. One cannot but sympathize with the outpouring of upset by the Afghani Muslims to this disregard for their beliefs. For them there is nothing holier in terms of text than their Quran. Israelis, Americans, in fact, all believing people would be equally upset if any Bible was burned by Muslims or anyone else. Burning of a Torah is so anathema that in the horrible situation that it may occur it is treated with so much respect that the remains are given a burial. Yes, most people would be upset by the burning of holy books. But, would they act as aggressively as the Afghani’s?  What is it that takes a reasonable measure of highly appropriate anger and turns that into a murderous rage resulting in days of rioting , bombing and such lack of respect for basic life that the focus becomes the destruction of people so much so that little else in the world matters?

            The core answer in this situation is twofold and includes aspects of the belief system that supports it and the social-psychology that maintains it. While I am not prepared to properly address whether Islam is or is not an aggressive religion many have stated that this is indeed the case.  Whatever the case is regarding the religious overview there is no question that Islam is perhaps the most coercive of religions. All religions have boundaries for membership; Islam’s boundaries are the most stringent. The behavioral requirements from acceptable food and dress to social pecking order are all explicitly defined and rigidly enforced by religious dictates and the functionaries who interpret and enforce these laws. As in many belief systems it is the most strident who become the most followed leaders. Karl Marx may have been at least partly correct when he said that “religion may in fact be the opiate of the masses” simply because it creates positive illusions for oppressed people. It is precisely this point which is in actuality the other underlying problem among many Muslims.

            Enforcing behaviors among the faithful is not difficult when the promise of future rewards is so grand as to create the vision of a permanent life of pure joy in the not too distant future, in the very next world. To maintain believers who will subscribe to this point of view simply requires maintaining an economic environment of dependency and neediness. A life where success is limited and education is restricted provides leaders with a stranglehold on their flocks. There is no option for these believers other than the promise of future rewards for adherence to ever restrictive demands and the fight for their beliefs. It is then easy to manipulate them to perform acts so violent because they do not have the wherewithal to reason on their own. Islamic believers who live in Western societies who are exposed to greater financial success and educational opportunities maintain their beliefs but are significantly less likely to be violent and when they are it is less likely that they will be so to the same extreme.  

            With all the talk of Iran’s sleeper cells in Europe the US and even in Israel, the likelihood that a terrorist event will be performed by a Westernized follower of Islam is minimal. The greater likelihood is that a terrorist will be someone who was radicalized at a younger age and has been restricted in opportunities of growth. It is this person who will trade a book for as many lives as possible. If we are to confront the threat we must respect religious beliefs but we must attempt to find a method to educate and expand opportunities for those who are at present trapped in a coercive life.