As I mentioned last week, Terry Jones — a minister at the ironically named Dove World Outreach Center — is organizing a burning of Korans to mark September 11. That strikes me as both largely pointless, non-substantive rudeness (as opposed to fair and substantive criticism of Islam, which would be perfectly proper) and as largely counterproductive to any realistic attempt to try to convert people from Islam to Christianity. In fact, it plays into the hands of those who are trying to associate American criticism of Islam — including more substantive, reasoned criticism — with angry, substance-free extremism.
But it seems to me that the response from Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (as quoted in this New York Times national feed story) itself plays precisely into Terry Jones’ hands. Here’s what Hooper was quoted as saying:
“Can you imagine what this will do to our image around the world?” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. “And the additional danger it will add whenever there is an American presence in Iraq or Afghanistan?”
Unless I’m misreading this, Hooper is pointing out that violent Muslims might react to Jones’ symbolic expression by trying to kill American soldiers — and apparently suggesting that Jones should be held responsible for this reaction by violent Muslims.
This of course reminds people about the violent strains of Islam, and the danger those strains pose. But it also shows how some spokespeople for mainstream Islam (here, Hooper) are willing to use the actions by their violent coreligionists as a tool for suppressing non-Muslims’ alleged blasphemies and insults. That is precisely the image of mainstream Islam, it seems to me, that Terry Jones is trying to foster. I doubt that this was a cunning plan on Jones’ part, but that seems to be the effect.
Now of course there is a legitimate role in life for warnings of others’ possible crimes, even if those warnings end up deterring people’s speech, symbolic expression, and other legal and even constitutionally protected behavior. (I’m setting aside the fact that this Koran-burning might be legally punishable because it violates a general city ban on open burning; I take it that Hooper’s argument is not that insurgents in Afghanistan will be more likely to attack Americans because Gainesville is allowing undue fire risks, and that he would have the same reaction to plans in a city which had a less restrictive fire code.)
But there is a big difference, it seems to me, between different kids of warnings. If your mother tells you, “Don’t become an abortion doctor, someone might kill you,” you might be annoyed, or might refuse to let your actions be guided by such a fear; but you’re probably going to be satisfied that she is acting out of a disinterested desire to keep you safe. Likewise if a public-spirited commentator with no axe to grind as to labor disputes says — in an environment where there had been violence by some extremist labor union members — “It would probably be better if people not cross the picket line at Factory X, since that sort of thing is likely to make a tense situation even worse, and maybe even violent.”
On the other hand, if a leader of an anti-abortion group — even a group that itself does not engage in violence — starts warning people that “Can you imagine the additional danger that building this clinic will create to innocent bystanders who might be in the line of fire?,” I think we’d have a different reaction. Likewise if a leader of a union says, “Can you imagine the additional danger that crossing the picket line will add, given that some people have already been willing to get violent over this labor dispute?”
In those situations, the mainstream group representative seems to be consciously using the threat of extremist violence [UPDATE: just to reaffirm what I noted above, the threat of others’ extremist violence] to achieve his own ideological goals. And he also seems to be trying to blame the people who are exercising their rights for the violence that would supposedly ensue. This sort of political tactic does not reflect well on the mainstream group.
So neither Dove World Outreach Center nor the Council on American-Islamic Relations has displayed itself to advantage here. But the difference is that Dove World likely has no realistic aspirations to being seen as a responsible, mainstream institution.
CAIR does have such aspirations. And those aspirations are not advanced by attempts to prevent blasphemy and insult using warnings of violent Muslim retaliation — and by attempts to partly shift (or at least broaden) the blame for such religious violence to include Americans who dare to provoke the Muslim extremists.
UPDATE: An analogy: Imagine (God forbid) that there’s such a large spate of violent attacks on Muslims in America level that American Muslims are at roughly the same the risk of violence from violent anti-Muslim extremists as Americans in Iraq or Afghanistan are from violent Muslim extremists. And say that that people who are already trying to prevent the building of the proposed near-Ground-Zero cultural center and mosque — people who are not themselves violent, and who themselves issue statements condemning anti-Muslim violence — add to their arguments this one: “Can you imagine the additional danger this provocative mosque will create for Muslims in America?”
Is this just fine? Or is there something improper about (1) these hypothetical critics’ trying to achieve their ideological goals by pointing to the risk of violence by those who share the critics’ ends (but who implement them through violent means) and (2) the critics’ trying to suggest that the mosque builders would be partly responsible for the violence?
(Note that this doesn’t require a judgment that the near-Ground-Zero mosque would be equivalent as a matter of morals or manners to Koran-burning — only that they are both legally and constitutionally protected, and, much more importantly, that the arguments against both point to the risk that they will provoke violence.)