University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Notes from Afghanistan: The Burning of the Koran

April 5, 2011

I’ve just returned from Afghanistan but I wanted to write one final blog regarding the burning of the Koran by the Florida minister last month. As many of you know, that act resulted in a number of anti-American and anti-UN protests during this past weekend, some of which turned violent, with several UN personnel and Afghan civilians killed.

For me, books fall under the rubric of cultural property, and this is especially true for those on which religions have been founded. Such books, like religious icons, are symbols that carry great power and often constitute the nucleus of a community. It is therefore not surprising that they are so frequently the targets of attacks—by conquerors, by those who follow a different religion, or by those who seek to wound a community for whatever reason.

When the Persians attacked Athens in 480 BC they went after the temples on the acropolis, just as the Babylonians and Romans battered the sacred monuments of Jerusalem during periods of armed conflict there.

This kind of iconoclastic fervor has been a component of society since the beginning of recorded history 5,000 years ago, and it will unfortunately probably never go away. Is there any way in which we can make a difference?

The most potentially productive course of action lies in children’s education. The sanctity of cultural property and the injustice of iconoclasm are themes that should be integrated into children’s curricula year after year, as the AIA is attempting to do with our K-12 education programs. This alone will not bring an end to iconoclasm, but it may cause one fewer book to be burned, and one fewer person to be killed in response to that burning.

  • “Is there any way in which we can make a difference?” – People working in Afghanistan should probably sue the arsonist Florida minister for delayed and reduced income: all delayed and/or not signed contracts can be brought back to his irresponsible action, pushing the borders of extremism a bit further. I think it to be only fair to have him and his congregation pay for that.

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