07 September 2010

Give me your tired, your poor, your Evangelical Koran burners...

This morning, we received a security warning urging extreme caution.  Apparently, some church in Florida is planning on commemorating 9/11 with an "International Day of Holy Koran Burning".  My immediate take on this news was an ardent and yet somehow resigned frustration.  What better way to mourn the murder of several thousand Americans, including Muslims, than by sparking riots half a world away that will put troops and civilians in danger.  Genius.  This sick little piece of political theatre State-side might well get someone killed over here.  It's akin to dropping a match in the forest and walking away before the conflagration starts; simply because you don't have to face the ultimate consequences of your actions does not mean that someone else doesn't.  Tragically in this case, it's going to be some 25 year old Marine with a baby girl at home and his local national linguist who believes that the Americans will help salvage his country.  This truly is God's will being done, I see that clearly.

Beyond my own initial disgust and smoldering angers, things became a bit more interesting as my locals trickled into work and read the warning for themselves.  Several were understandable incensed, as even the most religiously ambivalent of my co-workers are practicing Muslims.  What was really painful was when one declared that it must be a hoax.  He asserted with boyish confidence that, in the US, you have to respect other religions.  The call to burn Korans was obviously the work of a disturbed individual who had hijacked the church's website.

It was actually quite heart wrenching to burst a bubble that envisioned the US so positively.  I tried to explain that Afghanistan does not have the corner market on religious extremism or people who abuse God for political ends.  The Westboro Baptist and Canyon Ridge Churches both enjoyed cameo appearances in our discussion.  My co-worker digested this information for a few minutes, asking if this church in FL didn't realize how their actions would be received abroad, if not in the States.  To my mind, they are acutely aware of the likely reaction in the Middle East, and have in fact planned on how the inevitable riots will play to non-Muslim Americans.

To this, my co-worker resolutely determined that no response was perhaps the best one.  If they want to burn a book, let them, he declared.  My faith rests in my, not a book in Florida.  He waxed eloquent in his broken English about the need to meet such hate with peace, in order to demonstrate to the West the true fundamental principles of Islam.

The earnestness with which this young man believed in the tolerance and acceptance of the US affected me deeply, especially in light of recent events and anti-Muslim fervor there.  I vividly recalled a conversation with my mother a few days ago, in which even she, one of the most open people I've ever known, baldly stated that she doubted if Islam was compatible with democracy.  Moreover, she could not understand why those seeking to leave Afghanistan wouldn't just go to Iran or Saudi, where they would be among their own.  I was, frankly, appalled.  Why shouldn't a devotee of Islam have the same right to acceptance as a Catholic Mexican farm laborer or a Chinese Falun Gong dissident?

I readily admit that I am a fervent proponent of American exceptionalism, that is, the belief that the US is somehow different, better even, than any other state in the world.  However, this conviction rests in large part on the glorious ideals of liberty, equality, and individual freedom that shape the American identity.  I desperately want the US to rise to the expectations set by these shining standards, our national myth.  Unfortunately, looking at it through the eyes of my friend this morning, the reality of the States looked pretty tarnished by comparison.