On Koran burning and Afghanistan killing
April 3, 2011 44 Comments
Let us take great care with recent events, so that we are true to our best American traditions. A small church in Florida symbolically burned a Koran. Thousands of protesters in Afghanistan, ginned up by three mullahs angry about the Koran burning, stormed a UN compound and killed at least 12 people.
To be sure, words and symbolic actions have consequences. But our response to the words, the consequences, and the conclusions we draw, tests mightily how we as Americans think about speech, bigotry, religion and murder.
First, the fairly incontestable conclusions.
1. Burning a Koran, the Muslim holy scripture, is indefensible bigotry. It is a hateful condemnation of an entire religion, of many millions of people who draw inspiration, guidance and daily grounding from their holy scripture. It is a grotesque failure to appreciate the range of Islam and an ignorant obsession with a few high-profile extremists who push one violent interpretation of the Koran.
2. Violence — never mind murder — in the name of, or based upon a perceived slight against, Islam, is indefensible. What the Afghani mullahs promoted and what the protesters committed was a horrible crime. People in Afghanistan to help Afghanistan lost their lives because of irrational and indefensible rage.
This much is clear — and the rest of the more difficult conversation can only happen with people who acknowledge that this much is clear. To any who hesitate as to one or the other above conclusions, you are part of the problem, and no longer part of the dialogue. Please consider rejoining.
For the rest of us, seeking to build bridges rather than borders, I want to suggest additional fair conclusions.
1. The Koran burning “caused” the Afghanistan protests. It did not cause the violence and it did not cause the murders. Committing violence against, or killing, someone, particularly an innocent person, is an act of moral agency entirely independent from whatever prompted the anger. One may feel insulted and react passionately. Violence against innocents, and most certainly murder, is a plainly indefensible overreaction — an independent immoral decision that must be universally condemned without regard to what prompted the anger.
2. Muslim communities need to be as forthright as possible about the proper response to insult. Part of the suspicion problem in America and abroad is the notion that Islam gets a pass from what every other world religion routinely endures. Christians and Jews in America, for example, are well accustomed to frequent and repugnant insults against their beliefs, their scriptures, their icons– and the reaction is frequently passionate, but not violent, and certainly not murderous. The vast majority of Muslim-Americans embrace exactly the same calibration of protest without violence — and they need to say it.
3. Americans need to stop thinking about “Islam” and “Muslims” and the “Koran” and “sharia law” as uniform and codified “things” about which one can speak generally. Before any person presumes to speak a negative word about Islam, Muslims, the Koran, or sharia law, he or she better have a thorough understanding of each. Otherwise, confine yourself to criticisms of what you perceive to be objectionable interpretations of Islam. Then dialogue happens.
4. We have an uncommon First Amendment tradition in America. We permit the American flag to be burned, we permit a crucifix to be placed in a jar of urine and deemed “art” called “Piss Christ,” we permit atheists to accuse organized religion of all manner of vile historical and current atrocity (see #2 and #3 above). We accept these instances of sacrilege, in the American tradition, because we know that religious dispute must always be handled with words, even angry words, but never with violence. We can never return to the bygone age of settling religious dispute with violence. Every American, of every religious, non-religious, and irreligious stripe, benefits from that American commitment to freedom to be religious, in whatever way, or anti-religious, in whatever way.
5. I count Muslim-Americans — and this may be controversial abroad — as a special class of Muslims, a class of Muslims who have thrived because of American religious freedom, who are not a victim class but a success story, precisely because America respectfully lets religions be themselves. This is our shared greatness. This is how we talk with each other — on the basis of shared American values. This is how the vast majority of Muslim-Americans blend appreciatively into being Americans. And more Americans need to appreciate that.
There is a high-profile discussion now about Islamist extremism. I am hopeful that more Muslim-Americans step up and speak forthrightly in opposition to extremism and violence and in defense of both American and Islamic values. And I am hopeful that more non-Muslim Americans join that discussion respectfully, and come to see Muslim-Americans as their partners in preserving what makes this country great.
UPDATE: Cross-posted at CiF Watch — with some lively and mostly hostile commentary.