Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Burn 'em to ashes, then burn the ashes."

As a new fall semester begins, I sadly find some interesting parallels between the news and one of my courses. My humanities class for first-year students is called "Ban it! Censorship in Literature and Film." In it, we read books that someone, somewhere has tried to ban, or have removed from a library and/or curriculum, and we discuss what inspires the impulse to censor.

The first novel we read is Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, in which the job of firemen is not to put out fires but to burn books. And, until earlier this evening, Terry Jones, the leader of a small, radical group in Florida was planning to burn 1,000 Qurans on the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. This is what they call a teachable moment.

By coincidence, I also recently read Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, a novel which begins with a real historical event: the burning of thousands of Arabic manuscripts by Ximenes de Cisneros, Archbishop of Toledo, shortly after the Spanish Reconquest. The desire to destroy the unfamiliar is an old human impulse. Where there have been books, there has been book burning. It is the tribute the ignorant pay to the power of words.

I am awfully close to a free speech absolutist, and I would object to any governmental attempt to prevent this or any book burning. As abhorrent and ignorant as I find the impulse, it is still speech and thus a constitutionally protected right, and there can be no compromising that. My problem is with the hateful mindset that lies behind it, and the way that mindset has been aided and abetted by people who should know better.

The planned Quran burning was conceived before the recent upsurge of Islamophobia that has grown exponentially since reckless politicians began normalizing it with the politicization of the planned Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, but the attention it has garnered is clearly related to that other controversy. The Quran burning has inspired a wide variety of responses, but the one that has gotten the most attention this week is Brian Williams' interview with General David Petraeus, who said the event "puts our soldiers in jeopardy very likely."

While I think Petraeus is probably correct, I am disturbed by the idea of a military leader declaiming on whether or not American citizens should exercise their constitutional rights. I certainly would not think it appropriate if he were to say that opponents of the war in Afghanistan should not protest, and used the same justification. This is the proper role of political leaders, not generals.

But I do understand why Petraeus spoke up. In part, he was filling a leadership void. What the Florida fanatics were planning to do is despicable, and our political leaders (of all parties) should have spoken out and condemned it so that the world would hear loud and clear that the American people as a whole do not approve of the desecration of anyone's holy book. But there was little leadership of that type earlier this week, particularly from conservatives.

What Petraeus said put conservatives in an awkward position. Many of them, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin in particular, have been whipping up Islamophobia for weeks over the New York Islamic center. Those same people have held to a knee-jerk "do what the generals say" policy throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And for a couple of days they seemed puzzled as to how to respond. They believe Islamophobia is a winning political issue, but don't want to contradict Petraeus. What to do?

Yesterday, they found their talking point. Minority leader John Boehner said: "To Pastor Jones and those who want to build the mosque: Just because you have a right to do something in America doesn't mean it is the right thing to do." [emphasis added] Palin chimed in today with the same sentiment: "People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation--much like building a mosque at Ground Zero." (This last phrase--"mosque AT Ground Zero"--is simply a lie. Anyone paying any attention knows the proposed Islamic center--which will include a prayer room--is 2-3 blocks away. To continue to use that false phrase at this point is a deliberate lie.)

This is clever politics, but it is absurd logic. They cannot have their Islamophobic cake and eat it too. There is no equivalence here at all. The true equivalence is between Jones and the demagogues who are opposed to the Islamic center. What connects them is their shared belief in collective Islamic guilt.

The only way one can reach the conclusion that an Islamic center in the neighborhood of the World Trade Center site is "insensitive" is if one first concludes that Islam as a religion, and Muslims as a group, are responsible for the attacks of 9/11. There is no other way it can be "insensitive." The only thing connecting the sponsors of the project with the 9/11 hijackers is that they are all, along with 1.5 billion others worldwide, Muslims. That is collective guilt. (One sign at the New York protest read "Everything I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11." This is the same as Muslims or Jews saying "Everything I need to know about Christianity I learned from the Spanish Inquisition.")

The book burning plan was motivated by the same collective guilt mentality. Jones is quite upfront about it. "Islam is of the Devil," he forthrightly says. While he and his assistant have lately taken to using the phrase "radical Islam," they are not planning to burn books by radical Islamists. There is a book, Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, which they could burn. If they wanted to get really sophisticated, they could burn the works of Sayyid Qutb, the man widely considered to be the founding philosopher of Al Qaeda. They could burn an effigy of Osama bin Laden. Would there be any serious objection in this country to any of those acts? I doubt it. But they did not propose doing that, because they blame Islam as a religion for 9/11.

By burning the holy book of Islam, the Quran, on 9/11, they meant to make a clear symbolic statement: what happened on 9/11 is inherent to Islam. They blame not the individuals involved, or the organization to which they belonged, but the religion to which they belonged. And in that, they are doing the same thing as the opponents of the Islamic center.

I began writing this post late this afternoon, before hearing the news early this evening that Jones had linked his decision to cancel the burning to an alleged commitment to move the Islamic center in New York (Imam Rauf has denied making any such deal with Jones). But when I heard the news, it made perfect sense. Because of the growing criticism, Jones was looking for a face-saving way out, and Boehner and Palin gave him the formula: tie your hateful event to the New York Islamic center. He seized upon that, and declared that he had a deal and had achieved his goal (though he had never before today stated that as a "goal" of the Quran burning). It may work. It may allow them all to avoid the potential disaster this planned event threatened--this time.

But unless they stop fanning the flames, there will be another such incident. The demagogues have been riding the tiger of Islamophobia, and this threatened book burning hinted at the problem with that strategy: it may begin to turn and devour them. What ostensibly responsible leaders on the right have been doing for weeks now is normalizing bigotry. Their mentality, even if they won't admit it, is the same one that was behind the book burning. They may scramble now to disown this manifestation of their cynical political maneuvering, but they own it. They have given permission for people to indulge their most base and hateful impulses. They have made collective guilt directed at a religious minority in the U.S. a mainstream idea. They have abandoned their responsibility to lead. And they are responsible for the consequences.

That is how we came to the point today where the Secretary of Defense placed a personal telephone call to a crazy fanatic. That is how we got to the point where that fanatic could use religious blackmail to hold a nation hostage, to the point where the commanding general in Afghanistan felt he had to speak out so as to fulfill his duty to protect his soldiers. This is what happens when the blind ambition of reckless politicians leads them to forsake principle for personal political gain.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this Dr. Byrnes. Very well said indeed.

  2. Hey Mark, remember what we discussed at Nu-Way? The sheer cunning word-play or deliberate ignorance of calling an Islamic community center a mosque is the same as calling the YMCA a church.

    It's simply maddening.