When a pastor from Florida vows to burn the Holy Quran in order to “stop Islam” whilst standing on the lawn of his church, which proudly displays the sign “Islam is evil”, his acts are only representative of himself, not his faith, Christianity nor his country, America. The international media is meticulous in highlighting the smallness of the pastor’s congregation, in investigating his past to mark his beliefs as divergent from the mainstream, the display of a lunatic fringe tolerated in a free society but not reflective of it. The sane voices from civil society and celebrity are accorded prominence and ample air time to demonstrate that the pastor’s behaviour is an aberration, that all Americans do not despise Islam.
Yet the reverse is true when the perpetrators of deplorable acts belong to the Muslim faith. There is no disclaimer to point out that “Al-Terrorists” are but a percentile of the Muslim world. Pastor Jones’ congregation numbered 200 out of a population of 300 million Americans. Terrorists claiming allegiance to Islam, even if double the intelligence estimates, would constitute a similarly miniscule percentage of the 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide. Yet the 9/11 atrocity which killed 3,000 people, many of whom were Muslims, was overwhelmingly portrayed as an attack in accordance with the wishes of Muslims worldwide, sanctioned by Islam itself. The voices of moderation from the Islamic world were given scant attention. Instead, the inflammatory remarks of the Muslim equivalents of Pastor Jones were highlighted, repeated and presented as reflective of the “true” feelings of “the Islamic world.”
Such misrepresentation and lack of contextualisation is largely to blame for the fact that about 70 per cent of Americans believe it would be disrespectful to 9/11 victims to allow the construction of an Islamic centre, two blocks from Ground Zero. It would be disrespectful if you believed that Islam itself was to blame for 9/11. President Barack Obama acknowledged and attempted to counter this public sentiment with a reiteration that “the enemy is al Qaeda not Islam”. He also described the pastor’s proposed actions as “un-American”. Indeed they are. Book burning, effigy immolation, stone throwing and chanting “death to …” — these are the tools of protest of the poverty stricken, the powerless, the oppressed, the occupied. Kashmiris pelt Indian soldiers with debris, Palestinians hurl stones at Israeli tanks, politicians’ effigies are burned in the slums of New Delhi and Mexico City, Pakistanis wave banners, hand painted, misspelt and unsophisticated. The powerful have no need for such crude displays — they have sanctions to apply, profiling and policies to humiliate, international financial institutions to manipulate, 21st century technology to tweet, display and disseminate, news wires and publishing houses, movies and celebrities to propagate, their point of view.
For the Muslim masses the street is the only outlet for their opinions, which are rarely given a voice in the international media and are seldom advocated by their own, often weak, governments. The sufferings of Muslims are minimised, even justified, going unpunished and unrecognised, fuelling feelings of injustice and indignation. This week dozens of unarmed Muslim protesters were gunned down by Indian soldiers in Kashmir yet, typically, their deaths warranted no headlines or lead stories in the mainstream media.
Street protests of the chanting and effigy burning kind are often held up as evidence of rampant “anti-Americanism”. Yet these protest rituals are commonly used against local politicians, rival groups even fallen sports stars. They do not reveal a deep hatred of America, anymore than the pastor’s inflammatory plans are evidence of America’s intentions towards Islam. The reality is that the attitude of ordinary Muslims towards Americans remains hospitable, unlike the post 9/11 reaction that Muslims face on the streets of Europe and America, which have seen a record increase in hate crimes. Muslim societies still warmly welcome Americans, purchase American products, and aspire to recreate American success because Muslims do not hate America and its way of life. They detest and oppose the foreign policies of the US government, especially its repercussions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Pakistan. Unlike many New Yorkers, most Muslims differentiate between the two: as the Christian saying goes they “hate the sin, but not the sinner”.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2010.
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