Why do Muslims riot over alleged desecration of the Koran? For the same reason that Christians used to riot over alleged desecration of the Host, the wafer that when consecrated becomes the body of Jesus Christ, according to Catholic belief. For Muslims, the Koran is not a holy book, like the Christian Gospels or the Jewish Torah, but the incarnate presence of Allah on Earth, dictated to the Prophet Mohammed word-for-word by the Archangel Gabriel. It is not prophecy, but the presence of divinity, as a number of commentators have observed, including this one (The crescent and the conclave, April 19, 2005).
Under the rubric Muslim anguish and Western hypocrisy (Nov 23, 2004), I observed that Christianity once killed apostates as a matter of routine, an action defended in retrospect by Catholic theologians such as Michael Novak as appropriate to the times. Western commentators condemn the guards of the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for desecrating the Koran, while regarding Pakistani or Afghan Koran rioters as primitives. Condescending Westerners should look more closely at their own history. 
Host-desecration riots by Christians in 1298 led to an estimated 100,000 deaths in Germany and Austria, starting with the execution by fire of the entire Jewish community of Rottingen. Enraged Christians killed 3,000 Jews in Prague after a priest carrying a consecrated Host wafer was sprayed by sand. Other killings took place in Rome in 1021, Strasbourg in 1308, Posen in 1399, Silesia in 1451, and so forth. Medieval Jews, to be sure, were less likely to have tortured a consecrated Host than Marine guards were to have flushed a Koran down the toilet, and historians agree that the charge was a fabrication.  Christian sensitivities, nonetheless, were just as bloodthirsty as in today’s Pakistan.
Worshipping divine incarnation in a book, to be sure, has quite different implications than worshipping the incarnate presence of God in bread and wine. Textual criticism becomes heresy as a matter of course. And without the sort of textual criticism that busied the Christian reformers at the turn of the 16th century, it is odd to speak of an Islamic reformation. A book in whose very words God reveals his presence must remain stuck in time like a fly in amber.
Muslim violence over desecration of the Koran is not uncommon, as a matter of fact. According to the Nigerian Christian journalist Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo:
In December of 1994, a Nigerian Christian trader, Gideon Akaluka, was accused of tearing pages out of the Koran in the northern city of Kano. Muslim youths launched an attack on him. He was rescued by the police and locked up in Bompai prison. On December 26, 1996, Muslim groups stormed the prison, pulled Akaluka out and beheaded him. They hoisted his head on a pike and paraded through the streets of Kano.
On December 12, 2001, a Nigerian Christian truck driver, Saint Moritz, was reversing his truck near a fruit market in Kano. His truck accidentally ran into an area occupied by a Koranic study group. As students fled, one dropped his Koran. The truck trampled on a copy of the Koran. Muslim groups pursued the man. He ran to a police station. Mobs stormed the police station, overpowered the few cops on post and dragged the man to the street. They beat the man unconscious. He later died in a hospital.
No one, of course, is accused of desecrating a consecrated Host any longer, so Catholics have no one against whom to riot. Few Catholics, for that matter, still believe that the wafer really turns into the flesh of Jesus Christ (according to a 1992 Gallup Poll, only 30% of American Catholics polled clearly expressed this belief), and therefore are unlikely to riot even if someone really were to desecrate a Host. Unlike the skeptical Catholics, Muslims actually believe in the divine character of the Koran, and thus have something to riot about.
It now seems clear that some of the Guantanamo guards did abuse copies of the Koran, even if they did not, as Newsweek reported, flush one down a toilet. It would be surprising if US interrogators never resorted to Koran abuse as a technique for breaking down the will of prisoners. Like sensory deprivation, psychotropic drugs and physical stress, desecrating the Koran may be an effective interrogation technique. That does not make the practice any less deplorable, but the fact that it is likely to be quite effective in destroying the morale of Muslim prisoners increases the probability that it will be applied on occasion.
Two things explain the effectiveness of Koran desecration as a means of breaking Muslim morale. The first is that the Koran hosts Allah’s incarnate presence, so to speak. The second is the peculiar importance of success to Islam. Unlike Christianity or Judaism, worldly success is the ultimate testimony of Islam; the muezzin calls, “Come to prayer. Come to success!”, and its emblem is the crescent, a symbol of secular growth, as opposed to the cross, a symbol of renunciation of worldly things. As I wrote in Horror and humiliation in Fallujah (April 27, 2004),
The West cannot endure without faith that a loving Father dwells beyond the clouds that obscure His throne … The Islamic world cannot endure without confidence in victory, that to “come to prayer” is the same thing as to “come to success.” Humiliation – the perception that the ummah cannot reward those who submit to it – is beyond its capacity to endure.
Abusing the Koran is the equivalent of abusing Allah himself, and tells the Muslim prisoner that his god is powerless to avenge insults. Again, I do not condone such things, but merely observe that an effective weapon is more likely to be put to use. As I wrote in “Horror and humiliation in Fallujah:
Radical Islam has risen against the West in response to its humiliation – intentional or not – at Western hands. The West can break the revolt by inflicting even worse humiliation upon the Islamists, poisoning the confidence of their supporters in the Muslim world.
The ultimate in American condescension is the “Muslim World Outreach” strategy exposed by US News and World Report on April 25.  As David E Kaplan reported:
Although US officials say they are wary of being drawn into a theological battle, many have concluded that America can no longer sit on the sidelines as radicals and moderates fight over the future of a politicized religion with over a billion followers. The result has been an extraordinary – and growing – effort to influence what officials describe as an Islamic reformation.
Attempting to engineer an Islamic reformation may be the silliest initiative in foreign policy in the history of the world. The theological department of the Central Intelligence Agency will not persuade Muslims to loosen their grasp on the living presence of Allah on this Earth. In its tragic encounter with Islam, the West cannot help but inflict humiliation.
The Koran desecration affair, with its parallels to medieval Christian violence, reinforces the conclusion I drew in my November 22 essay:
Jews and Christians had centuries to accomplish the transition from public and political religion to private and communal religion, whereas circumstances press moderate Muslims to do this on the spot. The two older religions did so under duress, chaotically, and with limited success. Whether Islam can make such a transition at all remains doubtful.
 See for example Kenneth Woodward, “Newsweek and the Koran” in The Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2005, p A14.
 According to Wikipedia, “Host desecration is an anti-Semitic myth similar to the blood libel myth. It started in late 13th-century England and France (a century after Christians started making blood libel accusations against Jews), where it was claimed that Jews would steal consecrated Host wafers and torture them. According to the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, a consecrated Host wafer becomes the flesh of Jesus, so it was believed that Jews would steal and torture these wafers to reenact the crucifixion of Christ.”
 “Hearts, Minds and Dollars” by David E. Kaplan, US News and World Report, April 25, 2005.