The world’s attention is focussed on pastor Terry Jones in Florida who has declared his avowed intent to burn copies of the Koran on this, the anniversary of the 9/11 atrocities in New York. It is sobering to think that a very little man, who leads a small and failing congregation of no more than fifty people - people who may be as small-minded, mean-spirited and contemptible as himself – can command such attention. In the world of the Internet and instant news, however, it seems almost inevitable.
But let’s not run away with the idea that this one man’s actions are as newsworthy as the press and media coverage he is getting might suggest. It is the fear, the very real fear of the reaction of the Islamic world that has brought this petty act to the fore.
There is no substantial support for what this man plans to do; it has been roundly condemned by political and religious leaders around the world; Christian voices, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant, have been raised loudly denouncing this pointless act; all my Christian friends condemn him outright, indeed my American Christian friends condemn him. In light of which any reasonable person would mentally place Pastor Jones in the “wacky but what can you do” category and get on with their lives; not so Muslims.
In the Muslim world this act is defined as “A ferocious attack on Islam and Muslims” (al-Jazeera); There is talk of an uncontrollable Muslim response (al-Alam TV, Iran); there has been talk of “bloody wars and reprisals” (al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper); there are calls for the criminal court in the Hague to get involved (Qatari al-Watan newspaper) and the Jakarta Globe declared the American authorities “powerless” to stop the burning of the Muslim Holy Book.
Perhaps this last is an indication that not everyone understands the true nature and cost of democracy, that democracy means even the foolish can walk the streets without let or hindrance. You can read a digest of responses from the Arab world on the BBC US and Canada news site
Hysteria seems to define the character of Muslims brought up in those parts of the world we have come to identify as “Muslim countries”, although it is clear that it is as much underlying cultural influences as it is Islamic teaching that is to blame for such hysteria. Such cultural characteristics are exploited however by religious leaders and people are easily whipped up into a frenzy of vengeful and quite irrational and disproportionate expressions of rage. It sometimes seems like a population of petulant children who would be manageable if they didn’t have access to devastating weaponry that their temperament predisposes them to use without discrimination and on the slightest pretext.
It leads one to ask why, if Islam is such an important and positive cultural influence, so many of its adherents seem incapable of proportionate responses or reasoned reflection. Why they haven’t learned from this “great world religion” those values so characteristic of that other Middle Eastern religion, Christianity. Values so eloquently defined by Paul in his letter to Christians in the province of Galatia:
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, godliness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal.5:22)
It also raises the troubling question of how far the liberal democracies of the West, founded squarely on Christian principles of equity and freedom, can go down the road of appeasement and still keep its citizens safe. It is all well and good to beware we don’t wake the sleeping giant lest we provoke dreadful consequences, but if it takes one insignificant pastor of a church of just fifty people in Florida to evoke such responses as we have seen this week we urgently need a counter-response that declares loud and clear, “thus far and no further.” The truth is the giant Islam sleeps lightly and in that sleep continues to dream of conquest and subjugation.
The much misunderstood and misrepresented crusades of nine-hundred years ago were, contrary to popular belief, not an incursion into “Muslim territory” but an eleventh hour response by the political powers of Europe to a ferocious Muslim incursion that had swept out of the Arabian peninsula, across the Levant and North Africa with devastating effect. It had already arrived in the islands of the Mediterranean and settled in Southern Spain. Surely we can’t allow things to go so far and cost so much again.
But maybe by the time we sit down to count the cost of protecting our freedoms and values, the cost of appeasement, it will be found to be costly beyond our means. Then we will treat for peace and discover that Islam is no more gracious in victory than she is tempered and proportionate in response to slights and meaningless provocations.