Secretary Hillary Clinton’s self-congratulation over American leaders’ unanimous disapproval of the intended burning of Muslim religious texts misses out the truth about American society and politics, and the crisis of its fundamental values.
The mass furore over the construction of a Muslim community centre blocks away from Ground Zero is symptomatic of a serious malaise. Public sentiment often manifests in funny ways, but what is worrying is that this has not very seriously bothered many of America’s stout guardians of values, its face-saving rhetoricians.
Protestors against the construction are not terrified by the prospect of bombs hidden away in the mosque’s secret chambers, but are offended by the symbolism of it, and this sheer audacity of America’s alienated Muslim minority.
The name ‘Ground Zero mosque’ is an inaccurate, exaggerated and dramatic construct indicative of the desire by some elements to exploit the widespread Islamophobia in the U.S in order to obstruct a venture essentially courageous and needful.
I say ‘needful’ because of its true symbolism that has escaped many who have been swept away by the tide of Islamophobia. If any community has borne the brunt of what happened on 9/11, it is the Muslims. Not only do they suffer America’s wars in tottering Afghanistan and devastated Iraq, but also the assault on civil liberties jeopardizing Muslim identity globally, Islamophobia in all its facets_ discrimination, racial profiling, stereotyping, bias and a sightless demonization campaign. The construction of an Islamic Community Centre could be America’s conciliatory overture to the marginalized Muslim community, its initiative to start the healing process. The Centre could function as a sacred space for a victimized community to work to restore its true image and ethos, to highlight the role and contribution of Islam in society, and to actively engage with the American community. The United States, priding itself for its liberalism, must yield that necessary sacred space.
President Obama’s outright support to the venture may help salvage his personal image among the Muslims, but it offers little consolation in the face of stark realities Muslims in America have to grapple with. A recent opinion poll shows over 53% Americans hold Islam in a very negative light_ and the government cannot shy away from responsibility for having contributed substantially through its propaganda machinery to rising anti-Islam sentiment in the U.S since 9/11. The American public is almost exclusively informed on national and global issues by influential media giants run by powerful lobbies. The indicators of rising Islamophobia in the U.S speak loudly about the media’s relentless campaign of dehumanizing and othering of the Muslim persona, and its failure to justly differentiate between a religion followed by billions and the actions of individuals in a particular context who claim to belong to it.
Even more telling is General Petraeus’s take on the matter. In his view, what makes the heinous task of burning scriptures worrying is its consequences that may threaten the U.S military abroad. By this logic, it is the consequences for men in uniform that render the act wrongful, not the act in itself; not the hurt this barbarism will wreak on the sentiments of billions of Muslims worldwide, not that this atrocity flies in the face of the most basic values of human civilization and violates the most fundamental rights of billions. Petraeus’s sentiment was echoed in what White House representative Robert Gibbs said of the matter: that ‘any type of activity that puts our troops in harms way would be a concern to this administration.’ Again, the reprehensibility of the act lies almost exclusively in the fact that it may endanger the lives of American troops. The logic exposes the narrow, narcissistic, nationalistic arrogance that puts the bloated Self over its perceived Other; that makes some lives more valuable than others, ‘óur values’ more inviolable than ‘theirs’.
There has been great concern and speculation in the U.S media over the death of an American soldier in the wake of an uprising in Southern Afghanistan sparked by the news of the 9/11 burning plans. The General shudders to think of what may happen if the images of burning sacred books end up being ‘used’ by terrorists to ‘incite violence.’ He forgets that it is not the ‘use’ of the resulting images that is the trouble, but the act in itself. And any Muslim knowing this could happen in the heart of the United States of America cannot but feel confounded over the state of a nation that allows that to happen.
The United States must stop presenting its warmongering as a result of misguided and ill-advised policies as if it were a clash between ‘our’ values and ‘theirs.’ It must get real and face the fact that it is not hated for its values, but for the lack thereof.
Petraeus enlightens with an analogy that the proposed act is like the Taliban’s, and that ‘The Taliban do the same (burn sacred books?!).’ This sweeping statement again takes as given the myth that the wars going on are about values, religions, scriptures and not policies. The Taliban’s fight never has been about American, Western or Christian values. The logic used here implies that if it was not for images being used to threaten American interests, deranged fanatics like Terry Jones may attack and insult what is most sacred to Muslim sensibility, stab in the softest part, strike where it hurts most and crush the very heart and soul of the world’s 3 billion Muslims! The Taliban may be a reviled demon everybody loves to spit on. However, by attempting to strike a comparison between this global enemy and the despicable lunatic from Florida, Petraeus makes the contrast in their respective moral standing only too obvious.
Because, for a Muslim who takes his religion seriously, it is inconceivable to desecrate or even disparage any religious scripture or symbol. It is a core Islamic belief to acknowledge the Divine origin of all revealed religion. The Quran says: “Do not revile those who they invoke apart from God.. .” (Surah Anaam, verse 108). Muslims_ or even the Taliban for that matter_ cannot by any means respond to Jones’s lunacy in equal measure for the demand their faith makes on them. The universalism and pluralistic vision of Islam originating in its basic texts revealed 1400 years ago sets a standard that secular, liberal American society would take ages to reach. The fact that it can allow sick-minded hate-mongers like Jones to not only exist in society but actually propagate and promote their devilish cult with impunity while conventional self-congratulatory lip-service to pacify a minority’s raw sentiments goes on in the backdrop, ought to explode the bubble of what the U.S ‘stands for’. It ought to lead to a serious rethink, for it is about the very soul of America.