Amazon.com's Koran Desecration Problem
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
As the Koran-flushing-in-Cuba episode becomes old news, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) has helpfully found a way to keep Koran desecration in the public eye. It does so – and I draw on MPAC's two press releases (here and here), plus reports from the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times – by promoting the story of one Azza Basarudin, who bought a copy of the Koran, Oxford University Press edition.
A doctoral candidate at the University of California at Los Angeles specializing in Middle East studies, Basarudin ordered the volume in early May from Bellwether Books, a used book store in McKeesport, Penn. that distributes its wares via amazon.com. She opened the Koran on arrival and says she found written on the inside cover a profanity along with "Death to all Muslims." Basarudin recalls her response:
Basarudin asked MPAC, Los Angeles' contribution to the radical Islamic lobby, for assistance. It agreed and duly contacted Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, to whom it laid down the usual Islamist strictures: an investigation, a public condemnation, "a policy of zero tolerance toward this type of behavior," and (of course) financial support for MPAC.
Amazon at first only apologized for "distress caused by incident," so MPAC turned up the heat by holding a press conference on May 18 (at the Islamic Center of Southern California, no less).
The publicity worked. Patty Smith, director of corporate communications for Amazon, responded by calling the matter "appalling" and distanced her company from it. She noted that the Koran was purchased from Bellwether Books, not Amazon itself. She explained, "This was not our inventory, it was nowhere in our order or fulfillment process. It was a used book purchased through a third party." Still, she apologized, offered Basarudin reimbursement, a gift certificate, and promised to fire any employee who defaces Korans. She also – the kicker – indefinitely suspended Bellwether from selling Korans through Amazon and said that if the problem recurred, Bellwether would be banished from Amazon.
That meant Richard Roberts, owner of Bellwether, had to respond, and he did, denying that his employees defaced the book and pointing out that used books frequently have markings. He explained how the staff gives a cursory check to the four hundred books it sends out each day without closely inspecting them. He apologized to Basarudin, said any employees found desecrating the Koran would be fired, and offered to replace the book. He also promised to assign, in the Los Angeles Times's wording, "a quality-control officer to rigorously check incoming and outgoing books."
The head of MPAC responded unenthusiastically to these concessions: "We are gratified to learn that Amazon.com has suspended its relationship with Bellwether, but they have a responsibility to loudly condemn such hateful rhetoric and take pro-active measures to enhance educational programs that foster religious tolerance." MPAC instructed its acolytes to contact Amazon and urge it decisively "to resolve this case and ensure it is not repeated." That meant:
Comments: This incident, far quieter than the Newsweek flap, is in its own way no less instructive or important.
(1) MPAC did not mention that the customer in question, Azza Basarudin, 30, is an Islamist affiliated at one time with the Islamic Institute of Human Rights, headed by Wissam Nasr. (Nasr now heads the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) office in New York.) For an example of her thinking, note above, how she presents 9/11 not as an occasion when Muslims violated Americans but when Americans violated Muslims. In other words, this is no average customer.
(2) MPAC also neglected to mention that Basarudin bought a used Koran, not a new one. Used books buyers do not normally expect vendors to clean their purchases of markings by former owners.
(3) Is it pure coincidence that this Koran episode is so perfectly timed to follow the Newsweek and Guantánamo controversy? One can't but wonder if Basarudin, like at least seven other U.S. Muslims, is faking her own persecution. Or if, like its colleague CAIR, MPAC stokes anti-Muslim hate even where it does not exist.
(4) If Muslims succeed in requiring that Korans undergo inspection for impurities before being sold, booksellers might well cease handling Korans.
(5) The idea that a Muslim has the right, without proof, to accuse a non-Muslim of blasphemy, as Basarudin and MPAC have done, brings to mind the notorious anti-blasphemy laws in force in Pakistan. There, as the World Council of Churches explained in 2000, those laws "have become a major tool in the hands of extremists to settle personal scores against members of the religious minorities particularly Christians." In the United States, the blasphemy accusation serves as the basis for a Jesse Jackson-like corporate shakedown (note MPAC's demand for Amazon to fund its programming).
(6) That Amazon suspended Bellwether from selling Korans via Amazon is a symbolic punishment rather than a substantive one, but it matters nonetheless. Can one imagine any other book's defacement leading to such a penalty?
(7) This episode is yet another instance of Islamist organizations relentlessly seeking special privileges for Islam. At a time when American Catholics must endure "art" that consists of the crucifix in urine and a Virgin Mary made in part of elephant dung, why should American Muslims be indulged in their exquisite sensibilities? As Stephen Schwartz keeps repeating, if Islam is to flourish in America, it must adapt to America.
(8) Amazon should answer MPAC firmly in the negative, reinstituting Bellwether's right to sell Korans at Amazon, making no public condemnations, and not giving money to MPAC. If you agree with this conclusion, let Patty Smith at Amazon ([email protected]) know your thoughts.
Later on May 20, 2005 update: I am pleased to report that (judging by the letters I have seen), readers have responded to my request that they write Amazon; some of them can be found among the readers' comments below. Here are two letters of special interest, starting with one dated May 20 from Khaleel Mohammed, a specialist in the Islamic religion:
And this one, also dated May 20, from Michael Selzer, the founder of Bibliofind.com, a used-book service.
May 23, 2005 update: Three days later, Amazon has developed a standard reply to letters coming in on this subject. One reader who received it dubs It "pre-prepared grovel." The letter reiterates the policy I criticized ("At our request, the seller is instituting more stringent quality control over its incoming stock. Also, Amazon.com has suspended the seller from listing any copies of the Qur'an on our site for the indefinite future, though they are free to sell all other books"). One wishes that Amazon had learned something from the many eloquent letters it received (and even that its p.r. people wrote more grammatically).
Reader comments (185) on this item
Comment on this item
Support Daniel Pipes' work with a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes