Bigotry is always ugly, and Islamophobia is no exception. The paranoid notion that all Muslims are terrorists reached a new high (or low) with the news that a church in Gainesville, Florida plans to burn a stack of Korans on the anniversary of 9-11. According to the Religion News Service:
A Florida church with "Islam is of the devil" signs in its front lawn plans to host an "International Burn A Quran Day," on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks this year.
The Dove World Outreach Center, a non-denominational church in Gainesville, has marked the date in previous years with protests against Islam.
[Pastor Terry] Jones, who is also the author of a book titled "Islam is of the Devil," said protests are key to the mission of his church.
"We feel, as Christians, one of our jobs is to warn," said Jones. The goal of these and other protests are to give Muslims an opportunity to convert, he said.
In response to the posting of the event on Facebook a little more than a week ago, Jones said that people have been mailing Qurans to the church to burn.
There are few things uglier than burning books. It can call to mind things like the Nazis staging bonfires of literary and academic books, or Ray Bradbury's chilling dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. It is especially inappropriate for a church to host a book-burning. The most infamous moments in the history of ecclesiastical book-burnings were in the 13th and 16th centuries, when church officials condemned the Talmud as heretical and consigned it to the flames.
Churches should also be cautious about using fire in protests, even if it's only burning objects in effigy. Fire was reserved for crimes in which churches had a special interest, such as punishing heretics, "witches," and homosexuals. To use Sarah Palin's phrase in an ironic way, the memory of Christians using fire to enforce their views is "too raw, too real." Of course, mainstream Christians have rejected bonfires and burnings at the stake, but it is always unpleasant to see a few fanatics reject the moderate version of their religion. (This particular church, by the way, allegedly has a shady financial history. )
But should we make a special case for the Koran? After all, the attackers on 9-11 claimed to be Muslim, and Al-Qaida uses the name of Islam. Islamophobes seize on the appropriation of Islamic labels by terrorists and fanatics, and charge Islam itself -- even the Koran -- with being responsible for terrorism. Sometimes they make a show of pseudo-learning by selectively picking and choosing quotes from classical Islamic literature. They are very similar to anti-Catholics like the 19th-century Know-Nothings, who accused the Pope of trying to take over the world. So, do the "firemen" of Gainesville have an excuse?
Not really. Such displays of fear and loathing may get headlines, but they distract us from the very real fact that so-called "Islamic" terrorists typically victimize Muslims. Muslims also died in the Twin Towers attack -- in fact, at least 59 Muslims were murdered by the terrorists on 9-11, a grim tally greater than the number of pseudo-Islamic conspirators behind the attack. Since 9-11, most "Islamic" terrorist attacks have targeted Muslims, such as the recent bombing of the shrine of a Muslim saint in Pakistan. Likewise, Muslim clerics and organizations have, again and again, condemned terrorism as contrary to Islam. A recent and dramatic example is Sheikh Tahir ul-Qadri's issuing of a 600-page fatwa (see here, here and here) exhaustively demolishing the ideology of Al-Qaeda and other terrorists through its examination of the Koran and other sources of Islamic theology and jurisprudence. This is on top of a number of other official Islamic statements against terrorism.
The most important point to note, however, is that there is not a single verse in the Koran that endorses terrorism. Terrorism is very different from war in general. Terrorism is a very special kind of aggression, because it deliberately targets civilians in order to create fear in the population, or to goad the government into reacting in a hysterical manner. The Koran is very specific in saying that warfare cannot exceed strict limits. (See here and here on the Koran and peace). Following this, classical Islamic jurisprudence and Koranic commentaries taught that one could not target civilians in wartime. It is interesting that although Islamophobes seem to be obsessed with ripping Koranic verses out of their context, they are unable to cite a single verse that explicitly, specifically authorizes terrorism, and they ignore the fact that traditional Islam has always regarded terrorism as an inexcusable evil. (For more on the Koran, Muslim blogger Amanda Quraishi has compiled some links here in response to the planned Koran-burnings).
As an American citizen, however, what I find most chilling about this action is the propaganda value it gives to our nation's enemies. Fighting terrorism is not just a matter of armed force and intelligence work; there is an ideological front, as well. If this church in Gainesville proceeds with its plans, then it is likely that the pseudo-Muslims who try to stir up resentment and hatred will seize upon the videos. In politics, the most important distinction is not between religious and secular people, but between moderates and extremists. Extremists, even if they claim to belong to different religions, are alike in their use of fear and hatred. The activities of Muslim-bashers and pseudo-Muslim terrorists feed off each other. Likewise, all people who stand for moderation and tolerance -- whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or secular -- should take a united stand against fanaticism and fear, wherever it appears.
To the spreaders of hatred and paranoia, we can say, "Not in our name."