Terry Jones, an obscure, publicity-seeking pastor with a tiny congregation has caused a global controversy with his announcement that he would burn copies of the Koran at his Florida church to mark the anniversary of the 9-11 terror attacks thanks to the power of the internet and online social networks. His threat triggered a hubbub around the world, and a number of protests in some Muslim countries.
The pastor, who believes that “Islam is of Devil”, withdrew his threat in response to the condemnation of US President Barack Obama and religious leaders. But the Muslim outrage continues. And it is even reported that two people died during the riots in Afghanistan.
And down under an atheist Brisbane lawyer did what the American pastor did not dare. Alex Stewart burnt pages of the Koran and the Bible; smoked them and posted the videos on YouTube. With his youthful light-hearted stunt, Stewart wanted to prove that “burning religious books was no big deal, and that people needed to get over it”.
In human history, people burnt books always as an expression of animosity and punishment: to denigrate and annihilate a different belief or thought system, thereby defeating another group, monopolising the realm of beliefs and ideas and imposing one’s own superiority on the others. Religious groups burnt the holy books of other nations when they invaded other countries. The Nazis burnt Jewish books; and Americans the Communist books in the previous century. And the radical Muslim groups burnt copies of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which they considered blasphemous.
Therefore burning books embodies three important characteristics: violence, bigotry and tribalism. But today many defend the likes of Terry Jones and Alex Stewart on the grounds of freedom of speech. Of course these two men had different motivations in their intentions and acts. But what they did, or attempted to, was quite different from freedom of expression.
The pastor, who obviously does not represent all Americans or Christians, wanted to express his hatred of Islam and hostility towards Muslims. Despite his failure to burn the Koran, he was happy that he demonstrated the radical elements among Islamic groups. On the other hand, the atheist lawyer expressed his nihilism by burning the Koran and the Bible. His so-called heroic action on YouTube was an expression of contempt towards those who believe in God and an organised religion.
Tribalism often leads to arrogance of negative stereotyping of other groups, and makes people believe that their own ethnic, racial, religious or ideological tribe is always superior to the other tribes. This results in intolerance of others’ beliefs and ideas. And tribal bigotry might even bring about ethnic and religious conflicts if it is compounded by any political manipulation. Today in such ethnic and religious conflicts people still destroy flags, holy books, temples, and all the cultural and national objects, which the enemy side cherish.
And there is bigotry in every ethnic, religious and ideological group. But Islamic bigotry has received the greatest attention especially following the 9-11 attacks. In dealing with radical Muslim groups, ethical constructive criticism plays an important role: it is important to challenge Islamic extremism without inciting hatred and hostility against Islam and Muslims. It is also important to shift the attention to the promotion of human rights, civil rights, and the rights of women and minorities in Muslim societies rather than turning all debates about Muslims into a tribal, them-and-us controversy.
Moreover, pluralism can save us from the disastrous effects of tribalism and bigotry. It promotes cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity. In a plural society people can challenge the harmful aspects of religion, and at the same time acknowledge and respect the value and meaning of all religions for their followers. And pluralism encourages us all to create a more ethical world based on respecting differences.
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