Is America a Nation of Book Burners?
by Stephen Schwartz
Three weeks have passed since the burning of a Quran by a Christian preacher in Florida, Terry Jones, and at least 10 days since the outbreak of violence in Afghanistan, in which 22 people have died, including Americans and other United Nations personnel.
My views on these incidents embody my American origins, aside from my natural sense of repulsion at the burning of the book I follow as a Muslim. I am an American Muslim, but I was a plain American for 49 years before becoming Muslim. I have often spoken admiringly to Muslims of my mother's Christian heritage and the intensity of faith it expressed. Apparently unknown to Jones, the Quran praises Christians at several places in the text. I have also articulated my hope that Muslim scholars will examine and analyze Jewish religious thought in the rational and sympathetic manner so many great Jewish commentators have displayed toward Islam.
Terry Jones and the radical Islamists mirror one another and feed on each other; they are bound together by mutual need. Their resemblance is visible in Jones' apparent eagerness for martyrdom as well as his disregard for human life. Jones said in an interview broadcast by ABC News on April 4 that he considers the death of non-Muslims, including American soldiers, to be worthwhile if "perhaps in the long run, we may save hundreds or thousands." This is exactly the wording used by al Qaeda and other Muslim extremists to justify their atrocities: that they kill now, in violation of traditional Islamic guidance against suicide and terrorism, to save the Muslims who might be victimized in the future. In the same encounter with ABC reporter Matt Gutman, Jones luxuriated in death threats he claimed to have received.
In the years after Sept. 11, 2001, the argument that any limitation on American freedom represented a triumph for the terrorists was debased to the status of a cliché. But Terry Jones has handed a weapon, if not a victory, to the Islamist enemy. I have never supported that other cliché -- that "Islam is a religion of peace" -- because I believe Islam will be a religion of peace to the extent that Muslims make it one, and I wonder if the world wants Muslims to be peaceful in our repudiation of the terrorists. After all, Islam in arms against al Qaeda will not be peaceful.
But is Jones' version of Christianity, which involves burning books and flashing handguns before an ABC News reporter to illustrate how seriously he and his dwindling band of acolytes take their alleged ordeal, a religion of peace?
Some Westerners and dissident Muslims have criticized U.S. government officials, including Gen. David Petraeus, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, for their condemnation of Jones' actions. Some have also echoed Jones in placing blame for the tragic outcome of Jones' latest lurch for publicity exclusively on Muslims, including Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who denounced Jones to his people. But blaming Karzai for the reaction to Jones is like accusing Stalin for the crimes of Hitler. Karzai may have been wrong, but he did not invent Jones.
Afghanistan is not the leading Muslim nation in the world and if, incited by the Pakistani jihadis as well as the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, some Muslims fail to exercise the restraint called forth repeatedly by the Quran itself, it is not the same as a planetary upsurge of Islamic outrage. The same may be said of Florida: The extremism of its Christian demagogues does not represent the whole Christian population of this country. But another question may be presented to Muslims: Are they so weak in their belief that the antics of a discredited American loudmouth threatens their religion?
In discussing the burning of the Quran in Florida, we should also note that under fundamentalist Wahhabi domination, prior to the rule of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia destroyed thousands, if not millions of copies of the Quran that were printed outside the kingdom and confiscated from Muslim hajj pilgrims and other travelers.
Muslims, in regard to our feelings -- apart from ideologists who incite radicalism -- cannot be held to a higher standard than the believers of other faiths. Jews would be outraged at a burning of the Torah, and the burning of the Talmud under Papal authority during the 16th century is still recalled with pain by them. Christians do not always react calmly to the destruction of their sacred scriptures. Nor do Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians or other believers. Indeed, traditional Muslims consider the destruction of copies of the Torah and Gospels to be no less prohibited than that of the Quran. But the Afghan (and Pakistani) agitators who benefited from Jones' actions cannot bear exclusive blame for the blood spilled in South Asia over this incident.
Jones and others like him are provocateurs. When a society, including a global society, experiences a deep crisis, a provocateur seeks to divert attention from more profound issues. In this sense, Jones resembles the Ku Klux Klan or the Black Hundreds in tsarist Russia -- as do the Muslim radicals. The real mission of the KKK, with its agitation for racial purism, was to prevent poor whites and blacks in America after the civil war from uniting against their common oppressors. In a close parallel, al Qaeda and other extremists seek to prevent Muslims from challenging radical influence in the Islamic lands. Provocateurs are not exempt from responsibility, even when they do not themselves kill people.
Nobody should be surprised that Jones has accelerated his aggressive tactics at a moment when the world's attention is focused on the real, and much more significant, potential for democratization of the Muslim countries. The combat in Libya, and the future of Egypt, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia foretell a new revival of Muslim thought and action, in the interest of freedom, entrepreneurship, accountability and popular sovereignty, without the stimulus provided by Terry Jones and his "critique" of Islam.
But these arguments leave an important question as yet inadequately asked or answered: Do Americans wish Terry Jones to portray our country as a nation of book-burners?
Jones has the American constitutional freedom to be foolish, and Muslims should guard themselves against troublemakers in their ranks, no less than other people. But we may ask of Jones the same question we direct to angry Muslims: Are he and those like him, as Christians, so weak in their belief that they need to burn the Quran to protect Western society from contamination? That seems to be the attitude of the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who advocates banning the Quran in a country -- the Netherlands -- where a great part of the national cultural identity resides in the historic encouragement of free writing and publication. Holland allowed Jews and English Protestants to print their religious texts when no other Christian country would do so. The Dutch are likely not about to ban the Quran on any argument, notwithstanding their adoption of hate-speech laws and prohibitions on other writings.
Still, the issue of Americans as book-burners transcends that of the desecration of the Quran. Of course Jones has the right to do what he did, but is it right for him to do so?
I come to this with a special interest because while living in the Balkans -- Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo -- after the wars there, I was, and remain, involved in rescuing and restoring books that were deliberately burned in the destruction of libraries by Serb forces. I have also rescued Jewish books printed in Muslim countries, including some from Baghdad. An important aspect of Muslim-Jewish relations in the past is unarguable: While the Talmud was burned in the Christian West, Jewish printing was carried on in Islamic lands, including the Moroccan and Ottoman empires, without interference of any kind.
My values are American, representing several generations of indigenous inhabitants, immigrants and their offspring, who fought for abolition of slavery and against fascism and communism, and I do not want book-burners speaking for me, my country or my flag, apart from refusing the so-called right of Terry Jones or any other non-Muslim to determine the nature of Islam. Islam is a religion and it is defined by believers in it, not by its enemies. It is not a corporation in which its problems can be resolved by an external audit or prosecution in the inquisitorial style Jones professes.
America is not a country where these issues have resulted in mob action. Muslim fears of Islamophobia are exaggerated. But America is also not a nation of book-burners. I am a journalist by profession, and therefore a devotee of the First Amendment. I agree with John Milton that the destruction of books is a useless task that will not suppress unwanted thoughts, and repeat his claim: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." As Heinrich Heine, who admired America, put it, "where books are burned, people will be burned as well."
America should say no to Terry Jones, just as Afghanistan should say no to its radical preachers.