A perceived insensitivity concerning the Islamic faith’s supposed connection to the September 11th attacks, having gained worldwide publicity, has earned the ire of many and threatens some of our most cherished Constitutional freedoms.
No, I’m not talking about the plans to build Park51, an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan (no more the “Ground Zero Mosque” than the Greenwich Street Pussycat Lounge is the “Ground Zero Strip Club”). I’m instead referring to Rev. Terry Jones’ possibly aborted “International Burn-a-Koran Day” near his Gainesville, Fl.-church to mark the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
The controversy graced the headlines of every major news organization both here and abroad. No less than General David Petraeus, Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and now President Obama have condemned the event and warned of the danger it poses to American foreign policy, particularly the thousands of men and women stationed in Afghanistan.
No sane person would dispute The Dove World Outreach Center’s threat as being barbaric, but, before we start blowing the Inquisition trumpet, let’s take a moment to examine the absurdity of the situation. Rev. Jones’ congregation counts no more than 50 members, a drop of water in the ocean of American religious life. Yet their small publicity stunt has already brought hundreds of Indonesians and Afghans onto the streets, letters of disapproval from Muslim heads of state, and set Washington into a PR panic. Why it has even received so much publicity is beyond me. For his part, an unapologetic Jones has stated “we are not killing someone, we are not murdering people.”
It pains me to admit this on the day of Ramadan’s joyous end, but he may have a point. Isn’t it a bit ridiculous that small town bonfires and cartoon caricatures are on our leaders’ agendas? Should we also ask Salman Rushdie and other lapsed or former Muslims to hold their tongues for the greater good? Yes, that may preserve the peace, but it is a peace borne of dread, not dignity, and a double standard to boot.
In light of the bigoted rhetoric surrounding Park51, Muslims rightfully pointed out the offensiveness of having to explain the inexplicable, namely that the mere presence of law-abiding citizens in an “Islamic YMCA” open to people of all faiths near Ground Zero is somehow a painful reminder of the murderous actions committed against people of all faiths. Is it really that difficult to distinguish the actions of 19 criminals from children swimming laps, adults taking cooking lessons, or a family praying for its loved ones?
If it is stupid for some Americans to presume Muslim views on terrorism based on the actions of a few, then it is equally stupid for some Muslims abroad to presume American views on religious tolerance based on a (non-violent) few. Those threatening violence either cannot make this distinction or do not understand the First Amendment.
Our nation protects the right to love religion as much as the right to despise it. We should never apologize for upholding either right. As a Muslim and an American, I fear our leaders’ condemnations of Rev. Jones do not bring this important civics lesson to light, especially to those Muslims living under repressive regimes which curtail such vital freedoms.
They would do well to emulate citizens such as Imam Ahmed Al Mehdawi of the Islamic Center of Gainesville, in condemning death threats against Jones’ legally allowed bigotry as a far greater insult to the Prophet Mohammed’s message than any physical harm to a book could accomplish.
Yousef Mian is a graduate of Duke University and the University of Minnesota Law School.