So much was read into the announcement by Pastor Terry Jones that he would burn the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11 that this formerly obscure preacher must be delighted. His Koran-burning announcement set off a global debate about Islamophobia. Editorials were written about the clash of
civilisations. And the world's politicians — starting with Barack Obama — lined up to persuade the old boy to throw his match-box away on that day.
President Obama offered an interesting reason for opposing the burning. It would have made Americans the targets of militants, he said. In particular, Americans might have been at greater risk in such countries as Pakistan. (Don't you just love the way Americans hold Pakistan up as an example of the gravest threat to their way of life while simultaneously declaring that it is their historic ally?)
I have no problem with either of those responses. Yes, there is increasing fear of radical Islam all over the world and in America in particular. A recent survey revealed that one-third of all Americans believed that Islam encouraged violence against non-believers.
Nor was it far-fetched to say that the Koran-burning could have put Americans at risk. There is no shortage of Islamist lunatics who are searching for new provocations. And Americans make an attractive target for this kind of murderous nutcases.
But I still think that we need to go deeper into the issue. First of all, why are we so outraged by the pastor's remarks? Sure, they are deeply offensive but they are hardly unprecedented. These days everybody feels emboldened to criticise other people's religions.
The worst offenders are frequently Islamist fanatics. It is almost a rite of passage for aspiring terrorists to denounce Judaism as a murderous religion and to declare that it is a great and glorious thing to kill Jews. Forget about burning Jewish books, these guys would rather burn Jews.
Nor are Islamists unwilling to target entire nations in the name of Allah. Thirty years ago Ayatollah Khomeini used Islamist imagery to condemn the United States as the Great Shaitan and various Shia mullahs have followed his lead.
More recently, Sunni Islam has followed the Ayatollah's lead. All talk of violence against Americans is framed in religious terms. It is either a jihad or the holy duty of believers to kill Americans according to the likes of Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban — who are now ready for what must be the most horrific comeback of our times — governed in the name of religion and discriminated on the basis of their malevolent distortion of Islam. They did not just burn Buddhist texts, they actually destroyed the historic Bamiyan Buddhas. Not only could Hindus not brandish their own holy books, but they were also required to wear signs on their clothes identifying them as non-believers.
But why go as far as the Taliban if you are looking for evidence of religious intolerance? Just go to the Internet. You will find innumerable Pakistani sites where Hindus are denounced as idol-worshippers and followers of an inferior religion. Go south to the Maldives, a nation that is regarded as an ally of India, and you will find plenty of intolerance. Try entering the Maldives with a copy of the Gita or a picture of Lord Shiva. They will be confiscated by customs at the airport for fear that they might contaminate Maldivian Islam.
Lest you think that intolerance is an Islamic preserve, try reading what Hindus say about Islam on the Internet. The columnist and TV anchor Sagarika Ghose has coined the term ‘Internet Hindus' to describe a dedicated band of men who post comments on the Web and on Twitter in particular caricaturing Islam as an inferior and violent religion. The things they say make the Reverend Terry Jones sound like Mahatma Gandhi in comparison.
The real reason why we are so horrified by Terry Jones's prejudice and venom is because we believe that somehow, Americans will be different. It is all right for some mad mullah on the West Bank to bless suicide bombers, we say, but how can an American pastor go on television and exhibit such prejudice and ignorance?
In doing so, we vastly over-estimate American sensibilities. It is tempting to see America through the refined prism of the East Coast establishment or savvy Hollywood film-makers. But far away from these global advertisements for American culture lies the heartland, a dark underbelly of foolishness and insularity.
Indians are always shocked to discover that nearly 75 per cent of Americans do not have passports. It is not as though they cannot afford to travel abroad. They simply don't want to because they have no interest in the world beyond their borders. They regard it as mysterious and uncivilised.
This insularity breeds horrific misconceptions. One reason why George W. Bush was able to find public support for the invasion of Iraq was because a majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. Even now, after he has been in office for a year and after the controversy over remarks made by the pastor of his church, a full 20 per cent of Americans still think that President Obama is a Muslim.
This kind of ignorant American, the sort of person who turns his back on the world and sends money to tele-evangelists is Terry Jones's constituency. Affluence is no guarantee of either wisdom or general knowledge. Terry Jones's fans may be richer than the refugees on the West Bank but they are just as gullible.
To this potent Molotov cocktail of hatred and ignorance, throw in the lighted match stick of TV news and you have an explosion in the making.
Terry Jones could have gathered a few rednecks and burnt the Koran in the backyard of his church on the anniversary of 9/11. It would still have been an offensive thing to do but few of us would have noticed or cared.
But Jones wants us to notice. That's why he announced his intentions well in advance. And that's why he has gone on TV denouncing Islam. In the process, he has converted himself from a previously obscure figure to the lead item on news broadcasts all over the world. We have elevated him from small-town weirdo to global champion of redneck ignorance — and he didn't even have to burn the Koran. All he had to do was threaten to burn it.
In that sense, he is no different from Osama bin Laden who kills people and then puts out videotapes bragging about the murder. No religion and no country has any monopoly on religious nutcases. And sadly, hatred always finds a market.
The views expressed by the author are personal.
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