I can imagine the dust—both the desert dust and the ash of the burned book.
The Bible says that God made us from dust; recently the church calendar celebrated a day of dust—Ash Wednesday—in which we were reminded of the transience of life by the smearing of oil, water, and ash on our foreheads. The liturgy in my tradition tells us: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
But instead of following in the footsteps of Jesus, giving up something for Lent in a symbol of solidarity with Christ’s temptation in the desert, Florida pastor Terry Jones and his congregation held a trial. A trial for the Koran. In the end, they deemed it “guilty,” and burned it.
In a piece I posted a few weeks ago, I reflected on my time abroad and shared a few stories of my experiences as an American in a foreign country. I titled it: “More Dispatches from Abroad: Why Interfaith in America Matters.” It didn’t garner many readers or spur any sort of discussion, but in light of recent events, perhaps it will now.
My closing statements used Terry Jones as an example, warning that the world takes notice when America makes threats to burn holy books or, as in the case of Peter King, put a faith group on trial. If we are to diffuse the hate and negative reputation that follows the US as a bigoted and hypocritical country, then we have to saturate the discussion with stories of cooperation and peace. The world watches us. They hear us. And now that Jones has in fact burned a Koran (and others did in fact take notice)—with the result that 12 people are now dead—I think the discussion becomes evermore pertinent.
We are now on day four of the violent protests. Since I began this piece on Saturday, the death toll has climbed to over 20 people and counting, and 80 have been injured as the protests have turned to riots.
There is in this situation a tendency to point at the Afghan Muslims as fulfilling Jones’ perceptions of them as being violent, rash, and hateful toward the US. However, I would say that this characterization of Islam is unfair; it’s the equivalent of shoving someone on the playground and then being surprised when they retaliate.
Make no mistake, I am in no way saying that these Afghan’s actions were justified—they certainly were not. Nothing can justify what they did, not even the burning of a sacred object. To argue that somehow the Afghans were right to act out would be to say that human life is less sacred that wood pulp and ink, and that is simply false.
But it does give one pause.
The political situation in Afghanistan toward the United States was tenuous at best before Jones started advertising his “Burn the Koran Day,” and now by actually following through on his threats he has sent a very dangerous signal to the Afghan Muslims that has the potential to paint the “War on Terror” as a holy war. And all of this elevated tension comes just as we start withdrawing our troops.
The actions on both sides speak to severe dysfunction. Both parties highlight the need for dialogue and understanding. If Terry Jones and his congregation actually knew anything about Islam, then they wouldn’t have entertained the idea of burning a Koran. And likewise, if the Afghan Muslims knew that the vast majority of Christians in the US condemned Jones’ actions, perhaps they wouldn’t allow their anger to lead to murder.
Most disappointingly, the Christian community has largely balked at any sort of response (probably because there is no unified Christian community to issue one), and seems awkwardly silent in the wake of such a terrible tragedy. The statements coming from Jones’ church are calloused, insensitive, and woefully unapologetic. They just don’t seem to get it. What they did cost people their lives, and continues to perpetuate harmful relations between the Christian and Muslim communities.
I will repeat it again: interfaith cooperation in America matters. We need to set the example. Otherwise, the voice of intolerance and hate rings louder than the voice of peace.