by Bruce S. Thornton
The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity – Yeats, The Second Coming
Florida pastor Terry Jones called off his Koran-burning after President Obama and others in his administration joined the chorus of Americans asking him not to go through with it.
Like General David Petraeus, Obama claimed that such an act would be “a recruitment bonanza for al Qaeda” and “could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform.” He also asserted that such an act is “completely contrary to our values as Americans.” These sentiments have become the received wisdom about an obscure pastor’s transparent publicity stunt, and like most such wisdom, it reflects both moral and intellectual incoherence.
The most obvious curiosity about Obama’s response is that it privileges Muslims by demanding for them a sensitivity to their feelings never given to any other faith or political point of view. If Pastor Jones wanted to burn a flag, he would be greeted by a collective media shrug, even though such an act insults and grieves millions of Americans. If an imam somewhere planned to burn a Bible or the Torah, the peaceful protests of Christians and Jews would be met by a media civics lesson about the sanctity of the First Amendment. By endorsing this double standard, our leaders and media are validating the chauvinism of Muslims who believe that theirs is the true faith and that they are the “best of nations,” as the Koran has it, and as such Islam should be immune from criticism or insult, whereas heresies like Christianity and Judaism should not.
Another question concerns just which American “values” Obama is evoking. Freedom of religion? Burning one Koran will not prevent Muslims from practicing their faith, which they are free to do. Or is it the burning of books that is so contrary to American values? But the book burning we find abhorrent is the sort that tries to eliminate completely certain kinds of ideas by keeping people from reading about them, thus closing off the free play of ideas vital for political freedom. Burning one book as a protest is not going to achieve that aim, no more than burning a flag will keep people from being patriotic. Nor will burning the Koran keep anyone who wants to from acquiring and reading one. It is a symbolic political and ideological statement.
Perhaps American tolerance is being violated, as the President said. But American tolerance means that we allow all sorts of points of view to be aired in the public square, even those that are themselves intolerant. Hence Muslims in America, like the interfaith “bridge-builder” Imam Rauf, are free to promote and advocate the imposition of shari’a law even though its views on women, homosexuals, and non-Muslims are intolerant. Why doesn’t the President criticize that activity as contrary to the American values of tolerance and freedom of religion? And how about the value of free speech that the President’s intervention compromises by throwing the weight of his office against one man’s exercise of that right? Where is the ACLU with its usual hysteria about the “chilling effect” on the First Amendment?
But we all know that this reaction is not about “American values” and other pretexts. It is the fear of Muslim violence that lies behind the outcry against Pastor Jones. It is surreally ironic, given how often our leaders and media tell us that Islam is the “religion of peace,” and apologists define jihad as spiritual self-improvement, that the miniscule number of Christians who commit violent acts is trotted out to prove that violence in Islam –– 16,000 attacks since 9/11 –– is an aberration no more remarkable than the violence committed by Christians.
If Muslims are no more violent than other religious followers, how come everyone is warning the Pastor about inciting Muslim violence? If a Muslim announced he was going to burn a Bible, would the President warn him about inciting Christian violence? Has anybody scolded Imam Rauf for stirring up pogroms by Christians angry over the “ground-zero mosque”? Of course not, for there wouldn’t be any such reaction among Christians, partly because many so-called Christians don’t take their faith seriously enough to care, but more importantly because such violence simply is not part of Christian theology, and most Americans accept that freedom of speech and religion has to tolerate a multitude of unpleasant or even wacky variations.
This double standard has now been internalized by many politicians and the mainstream media. We scold those who protest against building a mosque in a city that already has a thousand, while Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a single church or synagogue. The incessant Muslim assaults on Christians and Christian holy places, from the abuse of Copts in Egypt to the occupation and befouling of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem by Palestinian terrorists in 2002, are ignored in the West or shrugged off, while even false rumors about Korans flushed down toilets ignite protests and riots, and a political stunt by the pastor of a tiny fringe congregation becomes a global event that even the President feels compelled to comment on. The only explanation for this weird double standard is the fear of Muslim violence, a violence sanctioned by Islam.
Another error in thinking that the President’s response indulges is one that has regularly appeared in commentary on jihadist terror. That is, everything the terrorists do is a reaction to what we do. Whether it’s our support of Israel or the invasion of Iraq, jihadist violence is explained away as a justified reaction to our foreign policy sins. This view is unsupported by history, given that modern jihadist ideology started in the Twenties with the writings of Hassan al Banna and Sayyid Qutb, long before the United States had much if anything to do with the Muslim Middle East. These alleged offenses of ours are mere pretexts for the jihadists, who have taken the measure of a spiritually exhausted West that has lost its nerve and so is eager to flagellate itself for its crimes.
Apart from that, though, this view is strangely arrogant. It attributes agency only to the West, reducing everybody else to passive victims unable to do anything but react to what we do. It enshrines Western superiority even as it seems to be confessing its sins. We are the motors of history, the main actor in the global drama. Those benighted Muslims might think that they are acting according to the precepts of their faith and the model of Mohammed, but what do they know? They’re really just angry over the Palestinians, vulgar satellite television, Guantánamo, American troops in Muslim lands, political cartoons, or disrespect for Korans. But as they repeatedly tell us, the jihadists are acting on religious precepts copiously documented in the Koran, Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence, and 14 centuries of Islamic history. They don’t need our actions to drive their violence. Of course, they will invoke such pretexts as propaganda designed to weaken our resolve, since we are so eager to believe we are at fault. But in the end, their motives come from the famous injunction of Mohammed: “I was ordered to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah.’”
Pace Gen. Petraeus and President Obama, the jihadists trying to kill our troops abroad do not need a burnt Koran to motivate them. Muslims across the world eager to become jihadists will not do so because of some alleged insult to Islam. Their faith already gives them plenty of motivation. A decade of protestations of our deep respect for Islam has not made the jihadists like us, no more than the billions of dollars spent on liberating Muslims from a psychopathic dictator, or on rescuing Muslims from tsunamis and floods. Neither will giving jihadists veto power over perfectly legal American political speech make them stop wanting to kill us. Nor will it prove how superior our values are, values the jihadists scorn. It will simply confirm the jihadists in their belief that since we lack conviction, we can be terrorized into compromising our beliefs.
And that means they can win.
©2010 Bruce S. Thornton