September 10, 2010
So it has come to this. A Florida Pentecostal church was planning to burn Qurans tomorrow to commemorate the morning nine years ago when Muslim terrorists brought down the World Trade Centers in New York, killing thousands.
Tasteless, one might say of the planned bonfire, and I wouldn’t disagree.
I was in Manhattan on that tragic morning, and in the nine years since, I like the rest of the world have lived through countless other episodes of intolerance committed in the name of Islam.
But never has burning a Quran felt like the right way to go; I oppose the desecration of any object sacred to another person, and remain mindfully aware that these wretched trends destroying the Muslim world from within are not the work of most Muslims.
And that would be the end of this column, if not for the fact that Pastor Terry Jones and his small congregation at Dove World Outreach were not being motivated by a second reason and that is to “send a very clear message to the radical element of Islam…. we do not tolerate their threats, their fear, their radicalness.”
Some of the objection to Jones’ bigoted idea, ironically, confirms the crisis of fear that Jones boldly opposes. This week American Gen David Petraeus and Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist warned that burning Qurans will incite Islamic extremists, and the media and blogsphere have been rife with the same claim. President Barack Obama was the latest to chime in yesterday, calling the planned demonstration “a recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda”.
On Wednesday, Feisal Abdul Rauf, the controversial imam behind a proposed Islamic community centre and mosque near Ground Zero said that moving the building could cause violent retaliation from Muslim extremists and jeopardise national security.
Actually, cowering like this will embolden extremists by signalling to them that they will be rewarded for their intolerance.
Malaysia has first-hand experience with this unintended consequence. In declaring Islam “too sensitive” to discuss, the government has incentivised Muslims to play that card any time they get offended rather than see their susceptibility towards intolerance for what it is. We saw this in hardline opposition to everything from an inter-faith commission to the dress preferences of international pop stars. A Muslim youth organisation that forced Gwen Stefani to dress down when she played in Malaysia pressured the government to force Beyonce to do the same. (Beyonce, as you’ll recall, shrewdly took her act to more tolerant neighbouring countries.)
Now, Muslim groups in Indonesia and elsewhere are promising retaliation if “Burn a Quran Day” goes forth.
Jones claims to have received more than 100 death threats. What, then, would backing down communicate?
There are plenty of good reasons to oppose Jones’ plan. Fear is not one of them.
What Obama and Patreaus and company should be saying is, Look, Dove Outreach’s 50 followers are not representative of America. In fact, Americans of all races, religions and backgrounds have come out forcefully to condemn the attacks. And so do we. But get a grip and realise that killing or threatening people with death for a perceived insult is unacceptable.
Pandering to intimidation merely encourages it.
In fact the prospect of violent backlash should worry the Muslim world more than Americans. Islam’s global image is in tatters, and responding violently would just play into Pastor Jones’ hands by advancing his view that “[Islam] is a violent religion and that is proven many, many times.”
Negative perceptions haunt the faith at every turn, as seen in the strong opposition to the Ground Zero mosque; to head coverings in France; and minarets in Switzerland. Resistance would undoubtedly be less if the Muslim world had more constructively used the time post-9/11 to restore the image of the faith.
Recent history in fact shows that violent fury from Muslims doesn’t even serve its aim to silence. The murder of Theo Van Gogh was followed by marginalisation of Muslims in famously-tolerant Holland and an anti-Quran documentary by a Dutch MP that has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Youtube. Riots and deaths following the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad heightened global suspicions that the Muslim world is resistant to basic democratic principles, and ultimately led to Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, which spawned 32 Facebook events and thousands of online images of Muhammad. (This despite protests in Malaysia with signs that read, “Take Some Lessons from 9/11!!”)
Violence this time around will sadly just serve to further alienate the Muslim world.
Moreover, it would be hard to justify — even according to the tenets of Islam.
America itself is not a legitimate target because so many Americans have thrown their weight behind the country’s cherished founding principle of religious tolerance, with evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, students, politicians and celebrities joining hands to protest Jones’ intentions.
Hizbut Tahrir — the Indonesian Muslim group promising retaliation and whose goal is to unify Muslim countries by subjecting them to Muslim law — says Jones’ plan is a provocation, as if a provocation justifies violence. Of course, the failure of some Muslims to rationally resist provocation has contributed to the Muslim world’s modern historical descent.
The chairman of Hizbut Tahrir has further tried to rationalise revenge on the grounds that the faith is being threatened. But is it? I can see how burning Qurans is offensive and in bad taste. But the right to practise Islam is not being restricted. No Muslim has been targeted.
No one’s suggesting Muslims shouldn’t stand up for their faith. The key question — one that Hizbut Tahrir and anyone promising vengeance on Jones haven’t figured out yet — is how best to go about doing that.
The jittery general, Patreus, and his likes have done nothing to encourage a constructive answer to that question, and its time they along with the Muslim world join hands with the diversity of American voices peacefully condemning the attacks, with tolerance, not fear and hatred, guiding their reasoning.
* A version of this entry ran on MalaysianInsider.com