Monday, September 13, 2010

A Recent RD Article, and Some Further Thoughts on Qur'an Burning

In today's Religion Dispatches there are three articles reflecting on the Qur'an burning that was threatened by Terry Jones and the tiny Dove World Outreach Center, not carried out by them, and then ultimately (and predictably) carried out by Fred Phelps and his tiny Westboro Baptist Church. One article reflects on the burning carried out by Phelps and his crew. The other two focus on the symbolism associated with the burning of books: "Virtual Book Burning and Its Consequences," by Laurie Patton, and  "Book Burning and the Scapegoating of Islam," by yours truly.

My original title for the essay was "Book Burning and Sacrificial Scapegoating," which I still favor--in part (of course) because of the double alliteration, but also because I didn't want to merely focus on the ways in which many Americans scapegoat Islam. Part of my point in the article is to call attention to the ways in which many Americans scapegoat "fringe" groups that are really only manifesting their own sentiments.

In fact, I wonder about the real source of much of the expressed outrage against the would-be Qur'an burners.  Much of it is rooted, of course, in the principle that one presumptively ought not to violate or degrade what is precious to others. Much of it is rooted in a desire to see interfaith bridges built rather than burned. Much of it is rooted in a fear of backlash, especially against American soldiers. But these bases for condemnation should, it seems, extend more broadly to the include other visible Islamophobic behavior in the US. And the fact is that, while there is a widespread unity in condemning Qur'an burning, there is at the same time a growing acceptance of overtly anti-Muslim sentiments--most notably in the opposition to building Park51, the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque," but radiating beyond this to a more widespread opposition to mosque-building in the US.

And this leads me to wonder just how much of the outrage against the Qur'an burning is a defense mechanism--a desire not to have one's own sentiments exposed in a manner that betrays just how ugly they are.

Not long ago I was reading a copy of the Daily Oklahoman--Oklahoma City's conservative newspaper--and I stumbled across an editorial by the newspaper's editorial staff in which it was declared "common sense" that building a mosque (which isn't actually a mosque but an Islamic community center, now called Park51) at Ground Zero (really a couple of blocks away) was an inappropriate and offensive thing to do (I don't have the editorial in front of me, so I can't repeat the precise wording, except for the use of the phrase "common sense," which sticks with me).

Since it isn't at all clear to me why this should be seen as common sense, I was bothered by the fact that there was no effort to explain why in the editorial. It's as if they were considering a proposal by al-Qaeda to build a recruiting center in the ashes of the World Trade Center.  In fact, I've since encountered a quote from Newt Gingrich that makes exactly this sort of comparison: "Nazis," he said, "don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in New York."

This quote led me to wonder whether Gingrich is out there fighting to have the Christian churches in the vicinity of the Oklahoma City Memorial torn down on the grounds that they are an offense against the victims of the Murrah bombing. After all, Timoty McVeigh moved in radical right-wing militia circles suffused with millenarian beliefs and sympathetically aligned with the Branch Davidians.

Of course, it would be nutty to regard the United Method Church next to the bombing memorial as akin to a Nazi sign on the lawn of the Holocaust Museum. If some offshoot of the Branch Davidians, prone to viewing McVeigh as a religious hero, were to propose building a center near the Oklahoma City bombing site, that would be one thing. But it would show extreme ignorance and prejudicial stereotyping to identify Christianity in general with such a group and to behave accordingly. And it would hardly be common sense to defer to such ignorance and stereotyping--by, for example, insisting that out of respect for those in the grip of false and misleading prejudice, we should pander to their prejudice by deliberately marginalizing and humiliating those who are being prejudicially maligned.

And let's be clear. It would be utterly humiliating to those planning Park51 to be strong-armed into moving their community center--since everyone knows that no other ethnic, religious, or cultural group would generate opposition of that sort. That peaceable Muslim-Americans have been singled out in this way conveys a message--the same general message that Terry Jones was conveying when he expressed a desire to burn the Qur'an. It is a message of profound disdain for a people, an indifference to their dignity based on a false prejudice, one that defines a diverse community in terms of the extreme behavior of a few. But when opponents of Park51 communicate that prejudicial message, it takes place under the shadow of a symbol in which its hatefulness can easily hide: the shadow cast by Ground Zero. Sometimes it takes an equally potent symbol--in this case book burning--to bring the message to light.

And many may not like what that light reveals.

Now let me say that I don't for a minute believe that religions should have a "free pass" from criticism. I certainly don't think that Islam should be free from criticism, any more than I think Christianity should be (although, in both cases, I tend to think that internal criticism is generally more effective than self-righteous better-than-thou pronouncements coming from the outside). But the fact that strip clubs objectify women wasn't invoked as a reason to bar strip clubs from the vicinity of Ground Zero. The fact that betting parlors deliberately profit off human vulnerability towards a certain kind of self-damaging compulsiveness wasn't invoked as a reason to ban betting parlors from the neighborhood. (And yes, there are strip clubs and betting parlors and bars and sex shops all in the neighborhood of the proposed Muslim community center). The fact that the Roman Catholic Church has quietly covered up an epidemic of child molestation wouldn't cause anyone to bat an eye if someone proposed a Catholic community center a couple of blocks from Ground Zero.

Whatever the wrongs of Muslim-American communities in general, they are not the same as those of al-Qaeda. And even if we might be prepared to say that there are maintream ideas or attitudes within Islam that made it possible for al-Qaeda to emerge, the same must be said of Christianity. There are things in mainstream Christianity that help make Dove World Outreach Center and Westboro Baptist Church possible. If Muslim-Americans horrified by 9/11 and its aftermath can be so identified with al-Qaeda as to justify likening a community center in the vicinity of Ground Zero with a Nazi sign on the lawn of the Holocaust Museum, then why shouldn't all American Christians be blamed for the Qur'an burning threatened by Terry Jones and his tiny church and carried out by Fred Phelps and his?

If we say that they shouldn't--if we say that the crimes of Westboro Baptist Church shouldn't be pinned on Christian Americans in general--then we must also concede that the crimes of al-Qaeda are not the crimes of Islamic Americans. Perhaps these would-be Qur'an burners force too many Americans into the uncomfortable realization that if they repudiate the extremists in their own ranks, they must also repudiate the tendency to prejudicially identify entire religious communities with the behavior of an extreme fringe--and so must repudiate their own tendency towards this very kind of prejudice.

I wonder how much of the knee-jerk denunciation of Terry Jones and his flock is really about that realization, and the desire to hide from it.


  1. Hi Eric,

    I have not followed this story very closely and I now see that it has ramifications I didn't realize, especially, as you explain, in what it means for fellow Christians – thanks for taking the time to comment on this. From up here in my peaceful and largely secular society the whole thing seems more like the imbecile works of a crackpot who is best left alone.

    However, there are other aspects of the story that, in my view, would be interesting to discuss.

    The first concerns the reaction of the muslim word to the threat of the burning and, more particularly the reaction here in the West to that reaction. However insulting and provocative the burning would have been, there is no common measure between this and the violent reactions that were anticipated. And, while violence could be anticipated, the troubling fact is that it seemed at the same time to be normal. We accept as normal the violent reactions caused by acts of this kind (admittedly disgusting but after all hurting no one). What is going on here?

    Another question concerns more generally the power given to extremists to define what is acceptable behaviour in free societies. The case of Clown Jones reminds us of more serious situations in which threats of violence from outside have caused a self-imposed censorship: think of the Mozart opera that has been canceled in Germany not so many years ago and, of course, of the cartoons depicting Mohammed. I find the weak resistance we show to these pressures very disturbing.

  2. Hi, Eric-

    Or how about... that we extensively repudiate Terry Jones and the anti-mosque bigots in a way that the Muslim world has not generally repudiated its wayward US flag burners, hangers in eifgy, and terrorists of many stripes, routinely funding them under the rubric of Islamic "charity" and jihad? Might that be an equally useful equation?

    Be that as it may, I think an interesting distinction could be drawn between the two media storms. Crazy as Mr. Jones is, I have to hand it to him that he has proven his point in spades. Which is, from what I understand, that Islam tends towards violence, and is populated with a rather high proportion of bitter, hateful, and resentful people who think all ill flows from the West and the US in particular. I guess we have seen this point proven over and over, but the simplicity and effectiveness of Mr. Jones's (media) technique was breathtaking to behold. That people could be so easily offended and whipped up provides food for thought, though obviously the impoliteness of the (threatened) exercise is off-putting.

    On the other hand, and as you say, the mosque sitation is pure bigotry with no rational point to it and a great deal of potential harm. To see so-called political leaders catching this train of hate is revolting.