Religious Ignorance, Bigotry and Ill Will: A Lamentation for 9/11

Religious Ignorance, Bigotry and Ill Will: A Lamentation for 9/11

[Ed. Note. This op.ed is a response by Dr. Kireopoulos to threats by the pastor of a small church in Florida to burn the Qur-an on September 11. Permission is granted to use it in any way.]

If one is looking for fuel to have a bonfire, there is no more explosive a mixture than ignorance, bigotry and ill will.  We need only think of the slave trade in West Africa, the Trail of Tears in the United States, and the pogroms in Eastern Europe, not to mention armed conflicts in all parts of the world, to know that, at its worst, such ill will has turned into violence and the killing of countless people by others whose imaginations have been inflamed by bigotry.  At the heart of many of these situations was theological ignorance. 

Unfortunately, we cannot forever consign ignorance, bigotry and ill will to the past.  This coming Saturday, on the 9th anniversary of September 11, Rev. Terry Jones and his church, the Dove World Outreach Center, in Gainesville, Florida, plan to hold a highly publicized Qur’an burning.  Rev. Jones says he wants to send a “very clear, radical message to Muslims, to Sharia law, that that is not welcome in America.” Expressions of outrage, disbelief, and disgust have rightly been issued from every geographical and religious corner of the globe.  

On all levels, it is easy to dismiss Rev. Jones’ bigotry and ill will.  But on the theological level, it is not enough to dismiss his error.  Indeed, we need to understand his error, and to see where such ignorance may lead, and why. 

A mistake often made in comparing Christianity and Islam is to see Jesus Christ and Mohammed on a par with one another, and the Bible and the Qur’an as analogous sacred texts.  But the theological reality is different.  In Islam, Mohammed is the prophet through whom God revealed himself in the Qur’an, and while Mohammed is revered for this role, it is nonetheless the Qur’an that is believed to be the divine Word of God.  In Christianity, Jesus himself is believed to be the Word of God; the Bible is venerated as the written record of the revelation of his true divine identity.  Thus, as far as religious comparisons go, it is Christ and the Qur’an, respectively claimed as revelations of God, that should be considered together.  This clarification helps to explain the Qur’an’s absolutely privileged and passionately defended place in Muslim hearts and minds. 

Bring us back to this coming September 11.  If as he reiterates Rev. Jones follows through with his plan to burn stacks of the Qur’an, it would be seen by Muslims as nothing other than an attack on the ultimate divine revelation.  It would not be simply an attack on a book, albeit a book considered sacred by 1 billion people, but an affront to the very God that is worshiped by those 1 billion people (not to mention the 2 billion Christians, and Jews, too, that worship the same God). 

We can only imagine what kind of response this action might elicit.  Most frighteningly, in villages across the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere, countless Christians may yet again suffer lethal violence at the hands of extremist Muslims for no reason other than the theological shortcomings of an extremist Christian in the United States.  After all, in the last 7 years, Christians in Iraq have suffered terribly from Muslim anger for their perceived association with Christian extremists in the West.  We need only recall the outrage during the scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo to reports of guards urinating on or otherwise desecrating the Qur’an.  Again this time, it will not be the likes of Rev. Jones who feel the backlash for such reprehensible behavior, but Christians in other places whose only sin is that they – at least in name only – share the same faith with an extremist in Florida.   

Let’s be clear:  It would be wrong for Muslim extremists to blame all Christians for the violence of a few against what Islam considers the revealed Word of God.  But let’s also be clear about what would be motivating this violence:  the desecration of, and violence to, what all Muslims hold most sacred.  That is a great price to pay for ignorance, Rev. Jones.

*Dr. Kireopoulos serves as Associate General Secretary – Faith & Order and Interfaith Relations, National Council of Churches USA