Keeping up with the Joneses - Aijaz Zaka Syed - Monday, April 11, 2011

Why is it that some of the greatest crimes against mankind have been perpetrated in the name of religion? Faith is supposed to liberate and empower us. To give us hope, strength and a reason to live. And keep us going even when everything around us is falling apart. It’s faith that bonds humble man with God making angels fall before him in submission. Faith, like reason, distinguishes men from animals and all other creations of God.

So why do we often see the so-called men of God turn on their fellow men in unbridled hatred in the name of faith? Faith is ought to make us more compassionate, more forgiving and generous to our fellow men and every living thing around us. Because they are all the creation of the One who created us too and whom we claim to love and worship. You would understand if crimes against humanity are committed by agnostics or deniers of the whole business of creation.

Mass murderers like Genghis Khan, Atilla the Hun, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others like them could be explained away as pathological killers untouched by morality or any sense of right and wrong.

But how do you explain those who kill in the name of God? This week Pakistan woke up to yet another attack targeting another shrine in the Punjab province. Around 50 lives were claimed by the assault carried out by two bombers. All those killed were Muslims and the shrine belonged to a revered saint. This was supposed to be a “protest against the un-Islamic, corrupt practices” and all that that goes on at such places.

In the past few years, hundreds have perished in such attacks in a country that was founded in the name of Islam.

Next door in Afghanistan, more than 20,000 protesters ran over UN offices in the sleepy Mazar-i-Sharif. Twelve people including seven UN officials died in the violence. And more people have died in subsequent protests that have now spread to other parts of the country. And don’t be surprised if the neighbouring Pakistan and other countries around the world soon begin to feel the heat of this latest of firestorms between the West and World of Islam.

And Rev Terry Jones says he merely wanted to ‘stir the pot’ when he and his followers at Florida’s Dove World Outreach Centre church put the Holy Quran ‘on trial’ and formally torched it. He’s the same dovish preacher who had decided to spread all-round cheer by making a bonfire of the Islamic scripture last year.

He was persuaded to ‘defer’ it after worldwide protests and appeals, including by President Obama and General David Petraeus, US commander in Afghanistan, who were concerned over the fallout for ‘our boys’ down there spreading sweetness and light in the badlands of the Islamic world. Now Rev Jones has gone ahead and done just that.

Only this harmless ‘stirring of the pot’ by a little known church has claimed the lives of innocent people like Joakim Dungel, the 33-year-old Swede working with the UN, who had nothing to do with him or the desecration of the Book. What was his crime? Or that of four poor Nepalese guards, who perished with him?

Rev Jones and his little congregation of kindred spirits however have no regrets over the killings of all those innocent people. Indeed, the priest argues that all that bedlam in Afghanistan and fiery protests by angry Muslims only prove his point: That Islam is evil and Muslims with their scripture deserve to be burnt at the stake. Just as the church had burnt all those free thinkers and scientists as heretics at the stake in Europe in the Middle Ages!

In fact, now that he is famous and has the world’s attention, the Florida pastor is planning to put the Prophet, loved and venerated by a billion believers above everyone else, himself on trial. It matters little that Prophet Muhammad had immense love and respect for Jesus, peace be upon them both.

The Quran not just reaffirms all the earlier scriptures and prophets and swears by Mary’s purity, it talks about Christ with great love and fondness. You’ll find more references to Jesus in the Islamic scripture than about the Prophet of Islam himself. So it’s not just the Quran that Jones has set ablaze but his own beliefs and icons.

And given the absolute freedom of speech and action everyone enjoys in the blessed Land of the Free, it’s unlikely anyone would stop him. No matter how much it hurts the world’s Muslims or what they are driven to do in outrage. The argument that all freedom is qualified and comes with responsibility may sound perfectly reasonable to you and me but it obviously has few takers in the west. Especially when at the receiving end are Islam and its followers.

This wouldn’t warrant so much alarm if it had just been the loony tunes of a lonely fanatic craving cheap and instant celebrity. Unfortunately, Jones represents a growing wave of intolerance and Islamophobia in America – and the west. It’s not just fringe groups like Jones’s congregation or fruitcakes of the Tea Party who are ‘stirring the pot’.

The mainstream Republicans led by former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep Peter King, who as the head of the House Homeland Security Committee has been conducting hearings on the clear and present danger that American Muslims allegedly pose to their country, and have been running an all-out campaign screaming about the ‘stealth jihad’ and ‘creeping shariah in America’.

The same forces have also been targeting Obama, dropping not so vague hints about his alleged ‘secret Islamic faith’. According to a Newsweek poll, 52 percent of Republicans believe “Obama sympathises with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world”. No wonder the Muslims, just one per cent of the population, account for nearly 15 percent of victims in cases of religious discrimination in US.

Things are little better in liberal Europe. The ever moderate Swiss, French and Belgians see no irony in banning the Islamic minaret – as though it was a WMD – or the tiny piece of cloth that Muslim women have worn to cover their faces for centuries as a matter of choice. President Sarkozy’s party is right now hosting a debate to tackle Islam’s ‘incompatibility’ with the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité, with Interior Minister Claude Guent, no less, turning the ‘number of Muslims’ in the country into a national issue.

Was Dr Samuel Huntington right after all? Are the Christians and Muslims indeed headed for a showdown, if not a head-on collision? It doesn’t have to end like this though. We are not foes but fellow travellers. Our scriptures come from the same source and our prophets had a common ancestor.

We may not agree with each other on everything. That doesn’t mean we must tear each other apart. Forming half of the global population, we could create a better and more peaceful world if we joined hands. Respect for each other and each other’s beliefs and sensitivities – is that too much to ask? Tolerance is a two-way street. You can’t ask Muslims to exercise restraint all the time when the other side continues to run amok. If we do not tackle the Joneses of this world before they mutate into fire-breathing monsters, they’ll soon destroy all of us. Too much is at stake for all of us to stand and stare.

The writer is based in Gulf and has extensively written on Muslim world affairs. Email: aijaz.syed@

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