COMMENT: Manipulated majorities —Zaair Hussain
If Pastor Terry Jones and his ilk did not exist, al Qaeda would be pressed to invent them, and vice versa. They feed each other. They drum up recruitment for one another. And they have brought the majorities to the edge of war
Every age labours under its own prophecies. One of the most powerful and persistent prophecies of the modern age is the inevitability of conflict between the Muslim world and the west. It was first popularised by the Samuel Huntington book The Clash of Civilizations and has never since lost relevance, fuelled by a legion of terrible missteps and a grand ideological and emotional abyss that has opened between the two majorities.
The war has come, but few envisioned it in this form. A war of slights and cowards and victims on every side. For all the achingly raw emotion that poured forth from the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ controversy (so-called because dubbing it the ‘Community-Centre-With-a-Mosque-Two-Blocks-From-Ground-Zero’ controversy would sacrifice snappiness for accuracy, a mortal sin in today’s media), its inception was startlingly cynical.
The plans to build the centre had long been submitted and met with approval for many months without incident or protest. And then, timed elegantly to dovetail with the American mid-term elections, a spark was struck. In all probability, it was a whisper from a nameless aide-de-camp who offered a shortsighted politician a gift as irresistible and terrible as Pandora’s fabled box. Exploiting the very genuine grief of the survivors of the 9/11 attacks, and re-igniting ill will against an electorally underweight minority in the US, would never, in realpolitik, be considered a particularly high price to pay for garnering more votes.
But after the box opened, what escaped could no more be controlled than any other force of nature. A few months later, we find ourselves here again, Muslims and the west lobbing insults and threats across their widening chasm.
The original controversy over the centre was a barefaced sham. Not only is the proposed site of the mosque roughly a quarter of a mile from the edge of Ground Zero, it lies unambiguously on private property. The right-wing’s claim that Muslim Americans should relinquish both their right to free exercise of religion and their right to legally utilise private property — two of the most sacred rights enshrined in the American constitution — is staggering.
The idea that Muslims should relinquish these rights due to some vague and marginal notion of propriety is not only bewilderingly un-American, it is deeply insulting: it implies that over a billion Muslims around the world — certainly the millions in the US — should, as a people, be apologetic about the actions of 19 crazed self-styled jihadists who murdered thousands of innocents, Muslims included.
Certainly, the overwhelming majority of Muslims were heartbroken by the sudden, wrenching darkness that snuffed out so many bright flames that should have burned so much longer. Certainly, they pray it will never happen again. But they can no more apologise for it than the average Anglo Saxon Protestant can apologise for the Klu Klux Klan, and for the same reason: our extremists do not speak for us. To imagine that they do is their greatest ploy.
Fundamentalists at both ends have harnessed the power of new age media with terrifying efficacy. The acts and accusations and goadings of madmen have never carried an illusion of such proportions; have never reached so deep or so far. They seek to overcome the reality of their microscopic number by manipulating perceptions and highjacking the ambassadorship of an entire nation or religion. It simply makes commercial sense for news channels, locked into an unending odyssey for higher ratings, to give airtime to the representative of a 50-strong church advocating a Quran burning day, rather than the thousands of American Christians who have written letters expressing disgust at the idea.
The war on the surface is between the Muslim world and the west, a cold war of missed targets and impotent frustration and guilt-by-association.
But another war rages, the secret war, the real war, between moderates and extremists across the globe. Knowing themselves to be hopelessly outnumbered, extremists have fought with deception and manipulation. And they are winning.
It should be obvious that the men and women who created and fed and fuelled the controversy care nothing for religion, ethnicity or even American values. It is equally obvious that the Taliban and al Qaeda care little for the welfare of Muslims; they went on record to say that they were delighted that the mosque was being contested because of the Muslim outrage — and consequent extremist recruitment — it was generating.
If Pastor Terry Jones and his ilk did not exist, al Qaeda would be pressed to invent them, and vice versa. They feed each other. They drum up recruitment for one another. And they have brought the majorities to the edge of war.
Even secular and moderate Muslims cannot help but be appalled and horrified at the idea of a Quran burning day. Even a moderate American cannot help but baulk at endless videos of the American flag being incinerated. And, finding no true victimiser to target, these moderate majorities begin to turn their hurt and anger towards one another. And deception by deception, the extremists win.
Pluralism and multiculturalism was flatly rejected in places like modern-day Saudi Arabia, and has suffered a rapid retreat in Europe with the rise of far right parties. Too many people and states have shouted, in their heart of hearts, “If you are unlike us, you are against us.”
To allow it to fail in the US, the wildly imperfect but ultimately genuine melting pot, would leave us all — Americans and Muslims alike — the poorer.
Terry Jones has backed down from actually burning the Quran, claiming he will not do it now or ever. The rationale behind his frantic back peddling is irrelevant. Meanwhile, inspired by his hateful words, an unidentified man desecrated and burnt pages of the Quran near the proposed community centre. Christians in Pakistan fear for their lives. With every vile act, here or abroad, the enemy divides us to conquer us.
We are not powerless. We can choose to reject the fiction of fanatics. We can choose to not judge one another by the pathetically small minority represented by the Terry Joneses or, for that matter, the Faisal Shahzads of our times. Extremists cannot be allowed to continue to hijack our agendas, our relationships and ultimately our destinies.
In the legend of Pandora, the last thing in the box was Hope.
I hope we choose well.
Zaair Hussain is a Lahore-based freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com