Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Book burning and 9/11

As the heat dies down over Qur’an burning day, on this side of the world at least, and as the media shift their attention elsewhere, I thought I would use today’s blog for some reflection on my own experience of the controversy.

In the build up to the anniversary of 9/11 my phone was buzzing with calls from deeply upset Muslims anxious that we ‘do something’ about the plans of the Rev Terry Jones. I was not surprised.  For Muslims, the Qur'an is considered the word of God. It is a sacred text to us and a desecration of it is a deeply offensive act. I understand why people were upset and angry. My response however, was to tell people to ignore the provocations.

The perpetrators of stunts like this are invariably self-seeking publicists. Their actions are driven by ego, not empathy with the victims of terrorism. Their intention is to foster division. Consumed by hatred and bigotry, their grip on reality is often dubious. The Rev Terry Jones fits the bill. He heads a micro-church that has less than 50 followers and which doubles up as a furniture store. His own daughter has described him as ‘mad’. I don’t hate the man; I feel pity for him and his ilk. 

I don’t believe in fuelling the oxygen of publicity they so desperately crave. Nor do I believe that as a Muslim I have to rush to defend my God against the slings and arrows of every crank.

It is important we keep a sense of perspective. If I believed all the rumours doing the rounds, what was being planned was an international Qur'an burning festival on a scale that would make the efforts of the Nazis seem amateurish by comparison! Yet the fact that the ravings of such a tiny sect can attract such massive international attention, and the fact that many Muslims believe some of the wild, apocalyptic rumours about conspiracies against our faith, does tell us something about the age we live in.

The belief that there is a ‘war against Islam’ is widespread. It’s not hard to see why. Every day I switch on the news there is some story or other which assume Muslims are a problem. The hysteria around proposals to build an Islamic community centre and mosque a few blocks away from the site of the 9/11 atrocity is contributing to a worsening climate in the US. And the trajectory in some parts of Europe is similar. This story, about a doctor refusing to treat women wearing hijabs, gives a flavour of intolerance at the heart of Europe's economic powerhouse. Here in the UK a former government minister is facing charges that he won his election by pandering to Islamophobia. The constant diet of negativity serves only to deepen ignorance and prejudice. While the overwhelmingly majority of people would have nothing to do with such an offensive act as desecrating the Qur'an, many will nonetheless have absorbed much of the propaganda justifying it. The idea that there is something uniquely and inherently violent in Islam, while nonsense, is nonetheless widespread.

Orientalism predates 9/11. But it has been given a whole new momentum by a misguided 'war on terror' which, while rebranded, is still very much with us. As the latest report from one of the world's leading security think tanks warns, Western strategy towards tackling Al-Qaida and the Taliban has been a "long, drawn-out disaster" that has “ballooned” out of all proportion to the initial threat. To undo the damage caused, here and abroad, a radical change of policy towards the Muslim world is required.

What has been lost in the upheaval since 9/11 is the fact there was an outpouring of sympathy from the Muslim world towards America in the immediate aftermath. That goodwill, and the space it opened up for new relations, evaporated as Bush and Blair chose war over good policing and good diplomacy. It will require something dramatic to start a new chapter but the price we are paying for failure makes this urgent.

Finally, the one image that had the greatest impact on me in relation to the 9/11 anniversary was not this or that bigot spewing their bile; it was this stunning picture from the Guardian. There is something in its simplicity that reminds me our shared mortality and humanity and inspires hope for the future.