Last year a fiery, fundamentalist pastor of a small Christian church in Florida threatened to burn a Quran on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Due to much public outcry and persuasion, he did not do it. That didn’t stop him this year, however, as his publicized burning on March 20 reached Afghanistan through Internet-streaming and ignited a weeklong protest, as well as riots and subsequent killings of U.N. workers. Donald Braxton, professor of religious studies, answers some questions regarding this cultural and religious clash:
Terry Jones is the pastor of a very small church and many top U.S officials, including the President, condemned his actions. Do you think he is simply an extremist or is representative of actual views of some Americans?
America displays all the signs of cultural backlash against Muslims, not limited to Terry Jones. He’s probably a blip on the screen. Some examples of other actions against Muslims include an increase in hate crimes against Muslims or people that they think are Muslims, a systematic attempt to prevent the buildings of Mosques, and the attempt to pass laws that outlaw the Sharia (Islamic Code of Law) in places where there are few Muslims and where they certainly aren’t attempting to make the Sharia universal. This indicates to me that Americans have had their self confidence knocked by 9/11. Terry Jones is symptom rather than a disease.
Why did the burning create such a violent backlash in Afghanistan?
There are few things you have to understand in order to answer this. First, Afghanistan has very intense honor-based culture. The defense of your honor marks your value as a human so when offenses occur you often get a overreaction. Second, it’s very common for conflicting cultures to desecrate the others holy cultural objects–Terry Jones did not invent this. Thirdly, of the three monotheistic Abraham religions, Islam has the greatest tendency to absolutize religious script, even to the point of believing that unless you know Arabic you cannot truly know the absolute words of the Quran. Jones went after their literal core-fixed emblem.
What can be done to alleviate the tension?
That’s the million dollar question. There’s no silver bullet in this situation; no one thing that will fix it. Certainly don’t burn any more Qurans, that is not a wise move. One of the things I study, however, is the competition of religions through their symbols. One of the ways you can de-escalate a lot of tension is to put strict regulations on how much public display is allowed. It’s a complicated process to determine what’s reasonable–a balancing act, but I think it’s an idea worth looking into.
Were there other background factors that led to the protests and killings?
Of course. Namely the American invasion of Afghanistan and widespread hatred of Americans. They didn’t do this just because Terry Jones burned a Quran and he is not solely to blame. But the burning acted as a catalyst for activity on the ground.
~ Joyce Eveleth ‘11, Juniata Online Journalist