Press Box

Down the Toilet at Newsweek

Dungeon legend and the peril of anonymous sources.

Is there a Quran-as-toilet-paper meme?

Newsweek floundered in journalistic purgatory over the weekend, unable to confirm or completely retract the “Periscope” item from its May 9 issue that incensed rioters in Afghanistan and Pakistan; 16 people died in the melees.

The item reported that a forthcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command in Miami was “expected” to contain the finding that Guantanamo interrogators had flushed a Quran down a toilet to break detainees. The magazine, which had attributed the information to an unnamed source, now says the source is backing off from his account. In a note to readers in the magazine’s current edition, published on Sunday, Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker wrote that the “knowledgeable U.S. government source” for the story said he “couldn’t be certain about reading of the alleged Quran incident in the report we cited, and said it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts.” In other words, the source took a mulligan.

The source’s backtracking and fresh Pentagon denials of the allegation (reported in the Washington Postand elsewhere Monday morning) made it all but impossible for Newsweek to defend the story. By late Monday afternoon, the magazine had retracted the allegation, with Whitaker issuing this statement:

Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay.

Newsweek’s initial reluctance to climb down is understandable. To begin with, the lead reporter was one of its investigative aces, Michael Isikoff. Next, the abuse of some Gitmo detainees by religious-taboo-busting interrogators has been officially acknowledged. Former Gitmo translator Erik Saar makes such charges in a new book titled Inside the Wire, although he did not make the Quran allegation in a May 4 interview on Democracy Now. However, an October 2004 lawsuit by Gitmo detainees does accuse one guard of throwing a Quran into a toilet bucket and another of kicking a Quran, adding plausibility to the story.

How did Newsweek get into this fix? Critics are right to damn the magazine for its over-reliance on an anonymous source and for taking the non-denial of a Pentagon source—to whom it showed the story prior to publication—as a kind of confirmation. As Isikoff told the Post, “We relied on sources we had every reason to trust and gave the Pentagon ample opportunity to comment.”

But Newsweek also made a third blunder worth dissecting: It let its anonymous source predict the contents of a future government document, a journalistic no-no as far as I’m concerned. Many years ago at a newspaper job far, far away, my attorney David Andich cautioned me and my writers against publishing what anonymous government officials said would be in their reports. He also told us to be especially wary of the prosecutor who informed us—confidentially, of course—that he was going to indict the deputy mayor next Tuesday. If you commit those stories to print and the report or indictment doesn’t contain the information your source predicted, you will find yourself in a world of legal hurt, he said.

In my mind’s eye I can see Andich reviewing the Newsweek copy. The Quran findings were “expected” to be part of the military report. “Expected by whom?” Andich would have said. “Can’t you wait until you have a draft or the final document in hand to report that they were included? What’s your hurry?”

Next, I wonder why Newsweek wasn’t more skeptical about Quran-desecration charges. Muslims so venerate the Quran that they are outraged if anyone touches one without first washing their hands, let alone put it into a dung-hole. One would guess that this sort of desecration would be too outrageous to be common, but a short voyage on the Nexis Wayback Machine proves it to be almost widespread. The earliest example I found was from an Aug. 18, 1983, Associated Press story filed in Islamabad, Pakistan. A Western traveler told the AP that Soviet soldiers and Afghan troops had used mosques as toilets and shredded the Quran for toilet paper. “My impression is that they were trying to humiliate the Afghans, but it just makes them hate (the Soviets) even more,” the traveler said. The AP noted that it couldn’t confirm the story.

On March 12, 1986, Australia’s Advertiser reported that religious authorities in Saudi Arabia ban the flushing of local newspapers because their pages “usually contain a verse from the Koran.” On Nov. 18, 1987, the AP moved another story—dateline, Washington—advancing a conservative human rights organization’s claim that Soviet troops used mosques as latrines and the Quran as toilet paper.

Moving into the 1990s, Muslims beheaded a Nigerian Christian after his wife was accused of using the Quran as toilet paper, according to a Jan. 3, 1995, AP account. Before the arrest of Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing case, the American-Arab Relations Committee told the AP (April 21, 1995) of receiving calls from people who said the Quran should be used as toilet paper. Deutsche Presse-Agentur (Feb. 8, 1999) reported that Philippine troops had burned mosques and flushed a torn-up Quran down a toilet to agitate Muslim rebels. The Quran-as-toilet-paper charge has even been leveled against Muslim militants by Russia’s Interfax (Oct. 1, 1999).

All of the stories cited above are poorly sourced, so it’s anybody’s guess how many of them are true. But just as every paranoid has at least one enemy, an actual case of the toilet-paper story is documented in Nexis: 15 years ago, an Israeli soldier used pages from a Quran as toilet paper when he found it in a bathroom of a boys’ school in which his unit bivouacked (Jerusalem Post, May 29, 1989). He said it was accidental, and he apologized, as did his superiors.

Compare the ubiquity of the toilet story with other kinds of Quran desecration. In my Nexis sifting I found only a handful of examples from the last 25 years: A man rips up a Quran (Statesman, India, March 27, 2001); the non-believers burn a Quran in India (San Jose Mercury News, March 23, 2001); and an Iraqi woman protests the search of her bag, which contains a Quran, by U.S. trooper’s dog (Agence France Presse, Oct. 31, 2003). All unspeakable violations, but none with staying power of the toilet-paper meme.

Could it be that the Gitmo prisoners lied or exaggerated about the Quran story, pushing forward the most outrageous meme in their inventory, and that their inflated charges percolated up to Newsweek? The Abu Ghraib photos and reports from various U.S. military lock-downs around the world should prepare us for the possibility that U.S. handlers committed such sacrilege. But if the original source of the allegations turns out to be prisoners, we might want to view their charges with the same doubts we apply to any testimonies about prisons from prisoners.

Two final points. Tonight, the cable television barkers are blaming the riot deaths on Newsweek. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admonished us all today, saying, “People need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be careful about what they do.” (He should take his own advice.) Are the riots and the deaths the magazine’s fault? I say no, whether Newsweek got the story right or wrong. If Al Jazeera published the most inflammatory story it could find—or make up—about the pope or the Virgin Mary, would we blame the satellite station if Rome rioted, or the Romans?

The killing of innocents is the greatest desecration.


Disclosures: Slate and Newsweek are owned by the Washington Post Co. Michael Isikoff, one of the reporters of the Newsweek item, is a friend. Several years ago, Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker approached me about working for the magazine. Readers, send mail to (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)