Nearly two centuries ago, the Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote, "Those who begin by burning books will end by burning people." Quran burning is a tool of provocation and intimidation. Despite admonitions from General David Petraeus, Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville vowed that he will go ahead with his plans to burn copies of the Quran on the ninth anniversary of September 11. While Pastor Jones is within his constitutional rights to undertake this despicable act, he is as misguided in his actions as the terrorists who abuse the Quran to justify their murderous acts. Both the terrorists and Pastor Jones erroneously make the same argument that the Quran sanctions violence.
In media interviews, Pastor Jones has admitted that he has never read the Quran. He harbors negative feelings about Islam while having little or no understanding of the faith. He fails to distinguish between the terrorists who misuse Islam and the overwhelming majority of Muslims who live Islam by being at peace and harmony with others. When this point is made, many well intentioned people raise the counterargument, "But what about all the violence being committed in the name of Islam?"
Graham Fuller, former CIA official and historian, says in his book A World Without Islam that the world would not be any different from the world today if Islam had never come into being. The West's often bloody relationship with the Middle East is not about religion and predates the rise of Islam. "I'm not arguing that Islam has not had great impact on the Middle East region and its cultures and civilization," Fuller says in an interview on NPR. "But I'm arguing that the nature of conflict between the West and the East does not depend on that, and precedes Islam."
In other words, burning the Quran or equating Islam with Nazism or caricaturing Prophet Muhammad or stopping Muslims from building houses of worship will not solve any of America's problems in Iraq or Afghanistan. Islamophobia is not only un-American; it is against America's vital national interests. Rev. Richard Cizik, of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, summed it up best: "And to those who would exercise derision ... bigotry [and] open rejection of our fellow Americans for their religious faith -- I say shame on you."
Bigotry and derision arises in part due to the fact that most Americans know nothing about the Quran, allowing themselves to be manipulated by demagogues. The Quran is to Muslims what the Gospels are to Christians: the Word of God. The Quran's 6236 verses divided into 114 chapters interweave many facets of our existential experience. Using one or two isolated sentences (such as verse 9:5) to assert Islam's lax attitude towards violence ignores a reality that all religions eschew cherry-picking sacred texts. No Christian will take this verse attributed to Jesus, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword," as sanctioning violence. Nor are Crusaders or abortion-clinic-bombers representatives of their faith.
The Quran acknowledges and reveres previous messages and messengers, such as the Torah of Moses or the Gospel of Jesus. Ironically, Pastor Jones does not realize that in burning the Quran, he will be incinerating the name of Jesus, who is venerated in Islam and mentioned in the Quran 28 times. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is also revered, with an entire chapter named after her. The Quran acknowledges the miraculous birth of Jesus and his many miracles. Two verses of the Quran articulate the resurrection of Jesus, "So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)" (19:33).
Given the deep regard with which Muslims hold the Quran, Pastor Jones' act of desecration has provoked outrage among Muslims both here and across the world. However, if Muslims in their protestations overstep the bounds of decency, they will play into the negative stereotypes of Islam. At the same time if people of other faiths remain silent at this extreme act of provocation, they will solidify the misperception that America is at war with Islam.
Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida. He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the Muslim American experience.