by John F. Di Leo
In a small town in Florida on March 20, the pastor of a small church held a public event: burning a koran for his audience and a video camera. His American Christian audience reacted as one would expect from them: they were happy to be a part of this provocative event; they returned to their homes and jobs after the service, and went on with their lives.
The world continued to turn… nobody of substance cared about Pastor Jones’ latest attempt at news coverage… until almost two weeks later, when it made the news half a planet away, in Afghanistan.
The president of Afghanistan denounced the event; imams and mullahs hammered it in their mosques. Their Afghan muslim audience reacted as one would expect from them: they streamed out into the streets, hunting down foreigners, beating hundreds of UN aides, NATO staffers, contractors, travelers, journalists, soldiers… rioting in the streets, burning the shops in their own neighborhoods, destroying property, attacking innocent bystanders. At least a hundred injuries and dozens of killings were confirmed by the second day of the riots.
In a world in which thousands die tragically every day – from starvation to murder, from disease and neglect – these events might not seem particularly newsworthy. When aren’t there riots in that part of the world? When aren’t innocents killed? It happens every day.
But this story is indeed noteworthy for several reasons, a chilling study in cause and effect, and in the difference between western civilization and the barbarism that still flourishes in the third world.
For over a year, Pastor Jones had been talking about burning a koran to make a point. Under western jurisprudence, you generally have the right to destroy your own property – buy a book, and it’s yours to dispose of as you wish. Whether you choose to keep it in a bookcase, donate it to a library, trade it at a used book store, toss it in the garbage or the recycling bin, or use it for kindling, is your choice. That’s what it means to live in a free country that respects property rights.
Whether one shares Pastor Jones’ publicly stated disapproval of the koran or not, one cannot deny that this was a peaceful demonstration, making a couple of political and theological points. And whether one agrees with those points or not – a rational case can be made on either side – in a free country, one can make one’s point peacefully. Perhaps he’ll convince more people to join his side of the debate; perhaps his methods will drive people away. That’s the nature of a free and spirited public forum in America; there’s no guarantee how the public will respond to your argument.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai denounced this koran-burning. It was used as the subject of sermons in mosques across the Kandahar region and elsewhere. It is probably impossible to know for sure who in Afghanistan is responsible for spreading it… no doubt Karzai will say he addressed it because imams had raised the issue, and the imams will say that they addressed it because Karzai did. Who knows.
These Afghan leaders capitalized on a public mood, coarsened by thirty years of war and tyranny, radicalized by the jihadists. They used one unimportant pastor’s gimmick, half a world away, to stir up riots and cause injury and death. And yes, they knew what they were doing.
Laying Blame at the Wrong Door
In point of fact, nobody watched a video of a koran-burning on his home computer, charged out into the streets of Kandahar, and started overturning pushcarts and beheading passers-by. It wasn’t a video on YouTube or an English-language press release on an American website that excited thousands of Afghans to go berserk.
This event was used by Karzai and the imams as the excuse to blame others for their ills. Playing on a longstanding whipping boy – “the Judaeo-Christian west hates us; they’re the reason we’re in misery” – the islamists set out to spur their followers to violence against westerners, no doubt fully aware that Jones and his congregation are a minority within a minority, no more representative of American attitudes than one would expect of a fifty-member church in a nation of 300 million people.
This might appear at first to be a duck. “Of course, Pastor Jones’ event was the catalyst; everybody said so!” And taken on its own, alone, that might appear to be fair.
But let’s look at the broader history of recent decades. Jihadists fire rockets into Israel, so Israel fires back at their missile launchers to stop it, and they claim that the west disrepects islam by firing back, and they riot. Jihadists get caught and jailed for attempting car-bombings, suicide-bombings, bus-bombings, and they claim that the west disrespects islam for arresting the terrorists, and they riot.
A magazine publishes an image of a painting or cartoon of Mohammed, and they claim that the west disrespects islam by printing it, and they riot. Their corrupt hero Yassir Arafat died… of natural causes, no less… and they claimed – you guessed it – that the west disrespects islam, and they rioted.
Viewed against the backdrop of these past thirty years, it is clear that the islamists (no, not all muslims, but the non-moderate ones – the jihadists and fundamentalists who control so many muslim countries and appear to dominate the clerical class) will grasp at any justification, however slim, to rouse their rabble into violent action.
When the publication of a cartoon, disposal of a book, or natural death of an old crook can be blamed for any violent action by unrelated others, it’s clear that it no longer matters what we do; they will do what they want, cause riots whenever they like, and always find some action, statement, or belief of ours on which to pin the blame.
In the west, our jurisprudence is based on personal responsibility. If you make a personal choice to rob, rape, beat, or kill, then you will be arrested, tried, and hopefully convicted and sentenced. When a team of cohorts are involved, we attempt to try them all, and to appropriately place the greatest blame on the ringleaders, the instigators. It’s not always easy to nail them all, but our prosecutors pride themselves on their attempts at such fair and appropriate practices.
The leaders of the drug cartels who direct their newest recruits to carry cocaine-filled condoms across the border – the mob bosses who pay a fee to a contract killer to rub out their rivals – the human-traffickers who kidnap or buy children abroad to market as prostitutes. We in the west hold them all responsible, the bosses and the underlings, the killers and those who pay them to kill. We respect the victim; our goal, imperfectly realized, but always the effort, is to prosecute the guilty and protect the innocent.
Not so in Afghanistan, where tribal rivalries, regional prejudices, and minute theological disagreements govern the day, where attacks on westerners, from verbal to physical, are always welcome by many of the powers that be.
Will we see the individual berserkers rounded up and prosecuted for attacks on westerners? Will any killers see trial, much less hang, for murdering innocent bystanders whose only crime was to be shopping at their stores, or walking down their streets? Don’t hold your breath.
A Chemistry Lesson
The term “catalyst” in our political lexicon comes from chemistry. A chemical reaction is a transformation of one or more substances into a new one, sometimes spontaneously, but usually due to the presence of a reaction initiator of some kind, perhaps an input of energy (such as a lightning strike), or the introduction of another chemical that causes a reaction among the various reagents present.
The catalyst guides that reaction along a certain path, or slows it to a manageable pace, or speeds it up to be more productive. Much of scientific research is spent focusing on what causes a reaction, what makes the transformation occur exactly as it does, what might improve the process to be more efficient, more worthwhile for human consumption.
The term isn’t used as carefully in political jargon, but perhaps it ought to be. We see a chronology, and assume that the first event must have been the cause of the observed effect – but we’re often wrong. Just as in chemistry, when a complex event occurs, and determining the causes and interactions can be difficult, so too it is in political life.
Let’s view these experiences using the scientific method, shall we (don’t worry, we’ll use an abbreviated approach)? Innocent people (both domestic and foreign) were injured and killed by rampaging Afghans. Prior to that, those rampaging Afghans streamed out of mosques after their weekly services. Prior to that, their imams ranted and vilified the west (exactly in what words, we don’t know – they’re almost never publicized like western pastors’ sermons so often are), sending them into the streets excited and upset. Prior to that, ten days prior, a world away, an American nobody held a poorly attended event in Florida and burned one koran.
It is clear that, if we were to use the word “catalyst” with greater accuracy than usual in political discourse, it doesn’t apply to our caricature of a pastor at all. He was too distant, his action too removed and too small, to be branded as the true reaction initiator. These riots needed a catalyst inside the reaction chamber – inside Afghanistan – in order to explode.
A Culture of Obedience
We in the west champion personal freedom, personal responsibility, individual liberty. We have the freedom to do the right thing, or the wrong thing, so we can be properly prosecuted and punished when we choose the latter. This heritage comes jointly from our Judeo-Christian understanding of individual salvation, and our political philosophy of free minds and free markets. Even in occasions of mob violence, we hold the participants individually responsible.
Not so in islamic countries. The word islam, so frequently mis-translated as “peace,” actually best correlates to “submission.” The adherent is to place his will under the direction of his imam, obedient not only to God, but very directly, to his very mortal – and fallible – spiritual advisor. If such an advisor is benevolent, this practice is no risk to society (Christian monks take an oath of obedience, for example, pledging submission to the directions of their abbots)… but if such an advisor is malevolent, as the jihadists are, the practice is unquestionably a risk to all around them. A jihadist imam, with thousands of unquestioning minions in his mosque or madrassah, can wreak untold havoc upon an innocent world, as we witnessed on September 11, and as Israel, Lebanon, and so many other targeted lands have been witnessing for decades.
This is not to say that obedience is bad, but it is to say that unquestioned obedience of a corrupt and violent philosophy quite undoubtedly is. There are doubtless moderate imams, who preach the decent and Godly strain also found in islam, and obedience in their congregations is usually harmless, even beneficial (unless and until that imam is replaced by an advocate of the alternate strain).
The western understanding of personal responsibility would be helpful here, perhaps even imperative. Too many in islam are taught an unquestioning respect for their spiritual leaders, so, when told to commit blatant evil in the name of their religion, they have no inner governor to generate the self-restraint that would be virtually instinctive in the west. (As a Christian, if my pastor ever told his congregation to engage in riots, bombings, or massacres, we would not only disobey, we would have him removed from the pulpit for counseling or retirement).
We have talked for decades of the difference between the many branches of moderate islam and radical islam. We would love for the United States to be left out of it, as we don’t like to get involved in other people’s religions.
But when a religious belief results in automatons being sent into the streets to ransack and kill, it is no longer a religious matter, outside the interest of the state. It is long past time to call on islam to police itself – to root out the jihadists from among their midst and to build a religion of Godly morality, if in fact that is possible. And it is time for governments and the media to assess blame where it belongs, on the heads of the killers and their instigators, to treat them exactly as we have long treated drug cartels, terrorists, and organized crime.
And we must stop accepting the finger of blame, the claim that “HE made me do it… that cartoonist in Denmark, that showboating preacher in Florida, that politician on Capitol Hill.” These external actors carry no remote controls, reaching across the world to spur riots and murders. No remote control has that long a reach. It’s the preacher at the pulpit, spewing hatred, teaching malice, training terror tactics and demolition, unleashing murderous mobs into a brutalized community.
Even in the west, where free speech is a right cherished from the Enlightenment onward, and enshrined here in the First Amendment to our great Constitution, we do not tolerate an incitement to riot.
It’s long past time to stop allowing the perpetrators to cast blame on westerners every time the perpetrators commit or encourage violence; it’s time to place the blame exactly where it belongs, and free the world’s well-intentioned muslim congregants, and their innocent neighbors as well, from the lethal influence of jihadists at the pulpit.
Copyright 2011 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based international trade compliance trainer. While he doesn’t pretend to be either a theologian or a chemist, he recognizes that application of the scientific method to our modern problems is imperative, if we ever want to identify and implement solutions. This world can indeed be a safer, more prosperous place, but not if we continue to allow the culprits to pretend that anyone but themselves bears the responsibility for the evil that they do.
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