From a small right-wing church in Florida, there has gone out a call to burn copies of the Quran on September 11. Instead of being ignored as clearly cuckoo, this call won world-wide media coverage.
As the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote almost two centuries ago, "Those who begin by burning books will end by burning people.” The theater piece for which he wrote those words, called "Almansor," was addressing the Inquisition's burning of the Quran. In 1933, university students in Heine's own beloved homeland burned his books, along with many others. They burned people soon after.
Many American religious communities and organizations, as well as secular groups like Common Cause, have condemned this call for burning. The road to burning people is by no means so open here, now, as it was in Germany in 1933.
Indeed, the right-wing Florida church finally withdrew its threat to burn the Quran. It seems to have responded mostly to a leading general's warning that US troops would be endangered if the burning went forward. (Note the irony here: In order to carry on more effectively a war against Muslims, it would be prudent not to burn their sacred text. This is a case where burning the people preceded burning the books, and helped stimulate the urge for book-burning -- as explained below.)
We still need to face the question: How did we get to the point where some Americans would burn a sacred book, and many more oppose the building of a sacred mosque in their own town––not only in Lower Manhattan, but in many other neighborhoods?
It would be easy to start with the aftermath of the terror attacks against the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. But the spiritual chasm between Christianity and Islam goes back centuries. The hostility of Jews toward Islam, on top of the ignorance of almost all European and American Jews about Islam, goes back at least to 1948. And the economic dislocations and unwinnable wars of recent years also have their place in pouring out the fear and anger that provides the fuel for the spark of bigotry.
Step 1: The Old Hostilities
There are perverse and paradoxical spiritual roots to the hostility between Islam and Christianity.
All the great religious traditions––not only those we call monotheist, but Hinduism and Buddhism and Shinto and Wicca and for that matter what we call "secular" traditions like socialism and liberalism ––are rooted in the profound effort to make loving contact with the ONE. One God, one historical dialectic, one Web of life in soul and body on our planet––ONE.
Once a community has begun to reach out toward the ONE, it begins to create the metaphors, the rituals, the languages, the practices in daily life, the festivals to embody this searching toward the ONE. And then the community bumps into another community that also claims it is in contact with the ONE, and has its own quite different set of metaphors, rituals, languages, and daily practices, with which to make this contact real.
There are often two responses to this discovery:
One is to say with surprise and delight, "You have shaped a different path from ours! Of course there must be many ways of lighting up the Infinite, unfolding truth. How could the great Infinity reveal itself except through sacred diversity? Let us learn from each other!”
The other response is to say: "We have unearthed the one way to the ONE, and any other path must be a false one. And worse than false––since you claim falsely to have made contact with the ONE, you must be lying. Corrupt. Deceitful. Worth killing."
In the various British colonies that became the United States, this bitterly hostile response was embodied in the persecution of one or another faith community (e.g. Quakers, Jews, Roman Catholics), by one or another of the original colonial governments. The uncertainty of who might get persecuted in the nation as a whole was one of the factors leading to adoption of the First Amendment, and much of the hostile reaction was then muted by the existence of the First Amendment. If no religion could wield state power and violence against another, this reaction was less likely.
Native American religions and Mormonism did not "count" in this context; state power or pressure was used against these religious communities. And there was public pressure in the 19th century against Roman Catholicism, and in the 20th century against the "Nation of Islam" (a racially focused variant not accepted by any other Muslims as truly Islamic).
Step 2: The 9/11 Attack
Until 2001 in America, both hostility and interfaith exploration were quiescent, in regard to classical Islam. Then a tiny proportion of the more than one billion Muslims of the world, claiming they were acting on behalf of Islam and God, murdered about 3000 people.
Again, there were two responses:
There was a wave of rage against Muslims and anyone who looked as if he might be Muslim. Some were attacked, a few were killed. Officials arrested hundreds of Muslims out of fear, almost always utterly unjustified, that they were would-be terrorists. Some of them were held for months without access to families or attorneys.
And during the same weeks and months, some Americans–– often religiously motivated Christians and Jews––rallied to protect Muslims and their mosques. Some stood guard to prevent attacks, some created vigils, some brought together Jews, Christians, and Muslims under " The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah.”
Step 3: The Wars with Islam
Soon after, the government of the United States began wars against two Muslim-majority nations. It quickly became clear that what began under the banner of "liberation” actually became conquest and occupation. Yet the wars dragged on, bringing death to thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians. And meanwhile, there were deadly US military attacks on Pakistanis, threats of war against Iran, and a continuing close alliance with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
There is a process that researchers in psychology have uncovered and call "cognitive dissonance.” People who begin with one opinion but act in a way contrary to that opinion change their ideas more than their behavior. After almost a decade of American wars against a number of Muslim-majority societies, and several actual murderous attacks by self-proclaimed Muslims against civilians in various countries allied to America, some Americans who had begun with few opinions about Islam in general began to view it with anger and disgust:
"If we are killing lots of them and they are killing some of us, there must be something evil about them.”
Step 4: The Great Slump
Meanwhile, Americans experienced a disastrous economic slump. The last time that rates of disemployment and of home foreclosure had been this high, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, one of the reactions was a great wave of anti-Semitism across America. Father Coughlin on radio, Henry Ford through the Dearborn Independent, were reaching millions of Americans with fear and hatred of the Jews.
So now, in another time of economic trauma -- and now also of unwinnable wars and a deep sense of cultural dislocation -- there was seething not quite visible below the surface of American culture and society a current of xenophobia. Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, became suspect. And Muslims.
Step 5: Crystals of Bigotry
And then into this hyper-saturated solution of fear, suspicion, and hatred came some who chose deliberately to drop the poisonous crystals of bigotry.
In December 2009, the New York Times––a liberal leader of opinion––and Laura Ingraham––a conservative leader of opinion–– carried articles and interviews about plans of American Muslims to establish Cordoba House, a community cultural center in Lower Manhattan. There was no fuss, no fury.
Not till May 2010 did the ultra-right-wing anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller and organs of Rupert Murdoch, the right-wing publisher who later gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, begin to carry inflammatory stories about what they call the "Ground Zero Mega-Mosque.”
And then, step-by-step, the crystal they sowed precipitated the super-saturated solution into a noxious brew. Right-wing blogs and talk-radio programs described the Cordova House as an insult to the dead of 9/11, a triumphal celebration by Islam of its victory in the attacks on the World Trade Center's, anything to arouse fear and hatred of Islam.
Even Jewish organizations that claimed their mission was to prevent "defamation" not only of Jews but of all religious and ethnic groups, or claimed their mission was to promote "tolerance," spoke out against the planning for Cordova House. "Yes,” they said, "Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan have every constitutional right to place their mosque or cultural center two long long New York City blocks from Ground Zero, but it is not ethically right or spiritually wise to do so. It would offend the sensibilities of the survivors of the 9/11 dead."
These assertions ignored both an important fact and a crucial principle. The fact was that hundreds of 9/11 survivors, in the organization called September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, had endorsed the placement of Córdoba House. The principle was that the constitutional right of freedom of religion has no reality if a wave of hostility from "private" citizens, sparked by great media empires and backed up by public officials, can prevent the fully legal placement of a house of worship.
Why then did the right wing media and right-wing politicians like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich decide to light this conflagration? The spark would not have lit a fire if that there had not been gallons of gasoline beneath the surface, but why light the spark?
I think the answer is that the right wing was and still is hoping to split the vote of progressive Americans by using not just Cordoba House but also broader fear of Islam as a wedge issue, just as they used the issue of gay marriage––which now has little bite. They have used the fear of Hispanic immigrants in the same way.
Fanning fear and hatred of Islam has one major advantage over firing up fear of gay people or of Hispanics: it may offer the possibility of splitting the Jewish vote, which is, next to the vote of African-Americans, the most progressive voting bloc in the country.
Indeed, many Jews, outraged by attacks on Israel that are sponsored by two Muslim organizations––Hezbollah and Hamas––and by Holocaust denials from some leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, may be susceptible to an Islamophobic campaign. At the same time, of all American communities, Jews are perhaps the most likely to smell and taste the danger of bigotry against a religious minority.
So the American Jewish community is one of the crucial arenas of struggle over whether burning the Quran becomes a step on the path that Heinrich Heine prophesied toward burning people.
Out of this witches' brew of dark past and explosive present, there emerged not only bigotry but another wave of interfaith engagement. Those of many religious and ethical communities gathered to condemn the burning of the Quran and to affirm all sacred texts, all sacred gathering places.
This kind of affirmation is important. And if indeed the official wars against Muslim-majority countries and the great wave of disemployment and home foreclosures have been crucial to pouring the gasoline of fear and anger that have been ignited by sparks of bigotry, then working for economic healing, a peaceful foreign policy, and the transfer of war budgets into rebuilding America are also crucial.
The path America will take is still uncertain.
As for the Jewish community, in its possibly pivotal role: Let us hope that a story from my own childhood echoes so strongly the memories and sensibilities of other American Jews that overwhelmingly, we will walk the path toward freedom and diversity, peace and economic healing:
When I was about seven years old (1940), my grandmother interrupted other Jewish women in line at the kosher butcher shop who were talking contemptuously about "the shvartzes" -- that is, Black people. She challenged them: "That's the way they talked about us in Europe. This is America, and we must not talk like that!"
We must not act like that, either.