How much of the apparent conflict between Muslim and Western values is real, and how much of it is either imagined by the misinformed, or contrived by posturing pundits?
I don't think anything illustrates the answer better than the muddle around last summer's threatened Quran burning in Florida, and the simple fact that Muslims burn our own Qurans.
When a Quran is old and frayed there are only three acceptable ways to give it back to God: removing the holy names and burning it, casting it into flowing water, or burying it. As far as Muslims are concerned, it's the Word of God and you can't just throw it into the garbage.
Christians call Jesus the Word of God, and believe that makes him something more than human. However, to Muslims, Muhammad and Jesus are like brothers. We believe Muhammad began us, but we also believe Jesus will be our leader when he returns. Frankly, that expectation is something both Muslims and Christians share.
But from a Muslim perspective, it wasn't like how Christians would feel if someone was disrespecting the Bible. Instead, it was more like they'd feel if someone was planning on burning Jesus.
However, when Muslims burn a Quran we do it as a sign of profound respect. And I'm begging my Muslim brothers and sisters around the world, the next time someone tries to work us up that way, could we go with our symbols, rather than theirs?
Frankly, better the Qurans be "burned and returned" by God's cleansing fire, than they remain objects of undeserved disrespect. If an ignorant someone burns Qurans, God still wins. God always wins.
There's a reason we use words like "inflammatory" to describe unnecessarily provocative actions and reactions. Most times, everyone ends up getting burned. And evangelical Christians aren't the only ones who make that mistake.
Every time angry mobs condemn those who disrespect Islam or a prophet to death, haven't you noticed that it just makes them disrespect our beliefs that much more?
And Muslims who burn American flags to protest American foreign policy just inflame those who think Muslims hate Americans for what they are, rather than just hating some of the things Americans do.
I think one of the main problems with the current state of Muslim/American relations is that nobody gets the other side's symbols and when meanings misalign, messages misfire.
For example, Imam Rauf honestly thought he could build a Muslim Center two blocks from Ground Zero and make it a symbol of peace. Imam Rauf and virtually every other Muslim (excepting the members of al Qaeda) consider Ground Zero the remnants of a disgusting attack by 19 criminals who claimed to be Muslim and failed their Islam.
There are only two crimes that get the death penalty straight up in the Quran: killing innocent people, and spreading mischief across the earth. The 9/11 attackers are guilty on both counts.
But then the many Americans who think Ground Zero symbolizes a war between Muslims and America got a hold of it, and brought Imam Rauf's optimistic aspirations to a shuddering halt for a time.
The thing is, symbols are symbols. You can't wish them away. We all use words to communicate, but we think in symbols. That means when you're interacting with someone it's really important to pay attention to what things mean to them, and pretty much impossible to get them to just change their minds and go with whatever those things mean to you.
Holy is holy. An old Quran is no less holy than a shiny new one, even though the old one's dirty and dog-eared. Likewise, the land around Ground Zero is holy to many Americans, despite the liquor stores and the strip clubs.
But here's the news flash: nobody has to choose between Islam and America. That is a false choice. In fact, both sides are closer than they think.
Islam and America mean very similar things symbolically to the people who believe in them, while sometimes carrying the opposite meaning to those who don't. Whether someone's burning flags or Qurans, they're generally both for and against the same general things. Believe me, I know people who could do either.
To Muslims, the Quran and Muhammad's example are the sources of our individual rights and freedoms. According to Islam, our rights and freedoms relative to each other derive from our equivalent relationships to God.
And yes, most Muslims believe that everyone is equal before God, with similar rights, responsibilities and standards of judgement.
So when people denigrate the Quran or Muhammad, even when they think they're denigrating oppression or terrorism, Muslims think they're denigrating rights and freedoms.
But Americans believe that their rights and freedoms derive from the American Constitution, with that constitution's interpretation protected by the First Amendment's proclamation of free speech.
So when Muslims burn the American flag or condemn free speech, they may think they're denigrating immorality and arrogance. But to Americans, they're denigrating rights and freedoms too.
And here's the good news: faith-filled people striving for a "Just Society" founded both Islam and America, even though sometimes we all fall short of our ideals. And the great thing about free speech is, when that happens we can always count on someone pointing it out.
Islam's and America's critics do have a point. There are Muslims and Americans out there doing scary things, like al Qaeda openly killing innocent people just to make a statement, or American soldiers allegedly using Afghan civilians for target practice.
Those sorts of failures need to be openly criticized and condemned by all of us, not hidden behind a smokescreen of words like "Islamophobic" and "anti-American." Such marginalizing rhetoric merely prevents any possible constructive utility to criticism, by automatically making it destructive instead.
Our shared ideals are why we should all support both free speech and tough questions, and both America and Islam. Because even though Muslims complain about being under the microscope for the last ten years, our Islam is unquestionably the better for it. It has become more refined, more defined by our founder's examples and more self-aware.
The same thing happened to America in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and will likely prove true as America deals with the consequences of their "War on Terror" as well.
The Quran honestly promises that all our different perspectives are mutually beneficial. And I'm hoping that with God's help, together in 2011 they can help us each find our own paths better, by helping us see ourselves -- and everything else -- more clearly.
If we can just keep all our symbols straight.
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