Rabbi Arthur Waskow : Five Steps to Burning Books

“On Sunday evening, members of the Harvest Assembly of God Church in Penn Township sing songs as they burn books, videos and CDs that they have judged offensive to their God,” Butler Eagle, March 26, 2001. Photo from American Library Association.

Does burning people come next?
Five steps to burning books

How did we get to the point where some Americans would burn a sacred book, and many more oppose the building of a sacred mosque…?

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow / The Rag Blog / September 6, 2010

From a small right-wing church in Florida, there has gone out a call to burn copies of the Quran on September 11. Instead of being ignored as clearly cuckoo, this call won national media coverage.

As the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote almost two centuries ago, “Those who begin by burning books will end by burning people.” The theater piece for which he wrote those words, called Almansor, was addressing the Inquisition’s burning of the Quran. In 1933, university students in Heine’s own beloved homeland burned his books, along with many others. They burned people soon after.

Many American religious communities and organizations, as well as secular groups like Common Cause, have condemned this call for burning. The road to burning people is by no means so open here, now, as it was in Germany in 1933.

But still, we need to face the question: How did we get to the point where some Americans would burn a sacred book, and many more oppose the building of a sacred mosque in their own town — not only in Lower Manhattan, but in many other neighborhoods?

It would be easy to start with the aftermath of the terror attacks against the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. But the spiritual chasm between Christianity and Islam goes back centuries. The hostility of Jews toward Islam, on top of the ignorance of almost all European and American Jews about Islam, goes back at least to 1948. And the economic dislocations and unwinnable wars of recent years also have their place in pouring out the fear and anger that provides the fuel for the spark of bigotry.

Anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller. MSNBC image from Loonwatch.com.

Step 1: The old hostilities

There are perverse and paradoxical spiritual roots to the hostility between Islam and Christianity.

All the great religious traditions — not only those we call monotheist, but Hinduism and Buddhism and Shinto and Wicca and for that matter what we call “secular” traditions like socialism and liberalism — are rooted in the profound effort to make loving contact with the ONE. One God, one historical dialectic, one Web of life in soul and body on our planet––ONE.

Once a community has begun to reach out toward the ONE, it begins to create the metaphors, the rituals, the languages, the practices in daily life, the festivals to embody this searching toward the ONE. And then the community bumps into another community that also claims it is in contact with the ONE, and has its own quite different set of metaphors, rituals, languages, and daily practices, with which to make this contact real.

There are often two responses to this discovery:

One is to say with surprise and delight, “You have shaped a different path from ours! Of course there must be many ways of lighting up the Infinite, unfolding truth. How could the great Infinity reveal itself except through sacred diversity? Let us learn from each other!”

The other response is to say: “We have unearthed the one way to the ONE, and any other path must be a false one. And worse than false––since you claim falsely to have made contact with the ONE, you must be lying. Corrupt. Deceitful. Worth killing.”

In the various British colonies that became the United States, this bitterly hostile response was embodied in the persecution of one or another faith community (e.g. Quakers, Jews, Roman Catholics), by one or another of the original colonial governments. The uncertainty of who might get persecuted in the nation as a whole was one of the factors leading to adoption of the First Amendment, and much of the hostile reaction was then muted by the existence of the First Amendment. If no religion could wield state power and violence against another, this reaction was less likely.

Native American religions and Mormonism did not “count” in this context; state power or pressure was used against these religious communities. And there was public pressure in the 19th century against Roman Catholicism, and in the 20th century against the “Nation of Islam” (a racially focused variant not accepted by any other Muslims as truly Islamic).

Step 2: The 9/11 attack

Until 2001 in America, both hostility and interfaith exploration were quiescent, in regard to classical Islam. Then a tiny proportion of the more than one billion Muslims of the world, claiming they were acting on behalf of Islam and God, murdered about 3,000 people.

Again, there were two responses:

There was a wave of rage against Muslims and anyone who looked as if he might be Muslim. Some were attacked, a few were killed. Officials arrested hundreds of Muslims out of fear, almost always utterly unjustified, that they were would-be terrorists. Some of them were held for months without access to families or attorneys.

And during the same weeks and months, some Americans — often religiously motivated Christians and Jews — rallied to protect Muslims and their mosques. Some stood guard to prevent attacks, some created vigils, some brought together Jews, Christians, and Muslims under ” The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah.”

Step 3: The wars with Islam

Soon after, the government of the United States began wars against two Muslim-majority nations. It quickly became clear that what began under the banner of “liberation” actually became conquest and occupation. Yet the wars dragged on, bringing death to thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians. And meanwhile, there were deadly U.S. military attacks on Pakistanis, threats of war against Iran, and a continuing close alliance with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

There is a process that researchers in psychology have uncovered and call “cognitive dissonance.” People who begin with one opinion but act in a way contrary to that opinion change their ideas more than their behavior. After almost a decade of American wars against a number of Muslim-majority societies, and several actual murderous attacks by self-proclaimed Muslims against civilians in various countries allied to America, some Americans who had begun with few opinions about Islam in general began to view it with anger and disgust:

“If we are killing lots of them and they are killing some of us, there must be something evil about them.”

Anti-Semite Father Coughlin in action. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Step 4: The Great Slump

Meanwhile, Americans experienced a disastrous economic slump. The last time that rates of disemployment and of home foreclosure had been this high, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, one of the reactions was a great wave of anti-Semitism across America. Father Coughlin on radio, Henry Ford through the Dearborn Independent, were reaching millions of Americans with fear and hatred of the Jews.

So now, in another time of economic trauma — and now also of unwinnable wars and a deep sense of cultural dislocation — there was seething not quite visible below the surface of American culture and society a current of xenophobia. Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, became suspect. And Muslims.

Step 5: Crystals of bigotry

And then into this hyper-saturated solution of fear, suspicion, and hatred came some who chose deliberately to drop the poisonous crystals of bigotry .

In December 2009, The New York Times — a liberal leader of opinion — and Laura Ingraham — a conservative leader of opinion — carried articles and interviews about plans of American Muslims to establish Cordoba House, a community cultural center in Lower Manhattan. There was no fuss, no fury.

Not till May 2010 did the ultra-right-wing anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller and organs of Rupert Murdoch, the right-wing publisher who later gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, begin to carry inflammatory stories about what they call the “Ground Zero Mega-Mosque.”

And then, step-by-step, the crystal they sowed precipitated the super-saturated solution into a noxious brew. Right-wing blogs and talk-radio programs described the Cordova House as an insult to the dead of 9/11, a triumphal celebration by Islam of its victory in the attacks on the World Trade Center, anything to arouse fear and hatred of Islam.

Even Jewish organizations that claimed their mission was to prevent “defamation” not only of Jews but of all religious and ethnic groups, or claimed their mission was to promote “tolerance,” spoke out against the planning for Cordova House. “Yes,” they said, “Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan have every constitutional right to place their mosque or cultural center two long long New York City blocks from Ground Zero, but it is not ethically right or spiritually wise to do so. It would offend the sensibilities of the survivors of the 9/11 dead.”

These assertions ignored both an important fact and a crucial principle. The fact was that hundreds of 9/11 survivors, in the organization called September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, had endorsed the placement of Córdoba House. The principle was that the constitutional right of freedom of religion has no reality if a wave of hostility from “private” citizens, sparked by great media empires and backed up by public officials, can prevent the fully legal placement of a house of worship.

Why then did the right wing media and right-wing politicians like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich decide to light this conflagration? The spark would not have lit a fire if there had not been gallons of gasoline beneath the surface, but why light the spark?

I think the answer is that the right wing was and still is hoping to split the vote of progressive Americans by using not just Cordoba House but also broader fear of Islam as a wedge issue, just as they used the issue of gay marriage –which now has little bite. They have used the fear of Hispanic immigrants in the same way.

Fanning fear an — may offer the possibility of splitting the Jewish vote, which is, next to the vote of African-Americans, the most progressive voting bloc in the country.

Indeed, many Jews, outraged by attacks on Israel that are sponsored by two Muslim organizations — Hezbollah and Hamas — and by Holocaust denials from some leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, may be susceptible to an Islamophobic campaign. At the same time, of all American communities, Jews are perhaps the most likely to smell and taste the danger of bigotry against a religious minority.

So the American Jewish community is one of the crucial arenas of struggle over whether burning the Quran becomes a step on the path that Heinrich Heine prophesied toward burning people.

Out of this witches’ brew of dark past and explosive present, there emerged not only bigotry but another wave of interfaith engagement. Those of many religious and ethical communities gathered to condemn the burning of the Quran and to affirm all sacred texts, all sacred gathering places.

This kind of affirmation is important. And if indeed the official wars against Muslim-majority countries and the great wave of disemployment and home foreclosures have been crucial to pouring the gasoline of fear and anger that have been ignited by sparks of bigotry, then working for economic healing, a peaceful foreign policy, and the transfer of war budgets into rebuilding America are also crucial.

The path America will take is still uncertain.

As for the Jewish community, in its possibly pivotal role: Let us hope that a story from my own childhood echoes so strongly the memories and sensibilities of other American Jews that overwhelmingly, we will walk the path toward freedom and diversity, peace and economic healing:

When I was about seven years old (1940), my grandmother interrupted other Jewish women in line at the kosher butcher shop who were talking contemptuously about “the shvartzes” — that is, Black people. She challenged them: “That’s the way they talked about us in Europe. This is America, and we must not talk like that!”

We must not act like that, either.

[Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the director of The Shalom Center. He is co-author of The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, & Muslims; author of Godwrestling, Round 2 and Down-to-Earth Judaism; and editor of Torah of the Earth (two volumes, eco-Jewish thought from earliest Torah to our own generation).]

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3 Responses to Rabbi Arthur Waskow : Five Steps to Burning Books

  1. Obama used his bully pulpit to defend the building of the Ground Zero Mosque citing 1st Amendment freedoms to do so. I don’t think we will hear a similar performance defending the Harvest Assembly of God church’s 1st amendment right to burn the Quran. Just because its a right, doesnt negate that it is hurtful, insensitive and divisive.

    I was working with a homeless man named Eddie this weekend. I wondered aloud why he didnt reach out to his family that still lived in Austin. He pointed out that he never molested his daughter, even though he was nude around her when she was 6. For him, that meant he didnt do anything wrong and had been wronged by his family for being accused, but eventually acquited of child molestation. I pointed out the obvious, that you can be legally right yet still inflict pain and suffering and harm. He owed his daughter and family amends and would have to come to grips with that if he ever wanted to find peace.

    The Imam feels wronged by those who oppose his Mosque. The FL church feels wronged by groups that seek to stifle their freedom of speech, and the homeless man feels wronged for being wrongly accused.

    All of their “arguments” are equally true, and equally meaningless outside a court of law.

  2. Brother Jonah says:

    President Obama, the one who was voted into office by 70 MILLION Americans, and is under fire from the same Bigoted Freaks who want to tear American society apart based on Racial and Economic and Ethnic and RELIGIOUS lines, the ones who are planning not only the burning of books but have, last week, burned down another Community Center in Tennessee, far far away from the “ground zero”, President Obama made a statement that people have rights. The Right to not be a homogenized uniform society and especially not one where the uniform standards are dictated by BIGOTS like Sarah Palin.

    Sarah Palin surrounded herself with like-minded individuals who suppose that they have some right or privilege or Authority or even POWER to decide who is or is not a “Real” American.
    Neither she nor any of her Demented Disciples has any such power.

    She said “Don’t sit down or shut up” at the very instant that she was purging her Hate Speech Assembly of people who dissented and Talked Back to her, using publicly funded Police to remove “hecklers” from The Divine Presence of Her Royal Majesty, having the PIGS no doubt beat the handcuffed “hecklers” into submission.

    The same way they always do. The same way she and her fellow Demagogues in the TeaParty are hoping to use not only the Police powers but also Hate Filled Mobs like those being fired up by the Florida Book Burning. And the Murfreesboro Mosque Burning to accomplish the same thing on a National Level.

    President Obama’s not very strongly worded objection is far more patriotic, and it should have been put far more bluntly.
    Those 70 million votes might have been a closer margin had it not been for the Republican Party adopting Hatred as the first planks of their platform, the same Bully Pulpit Silly Sarah and Glenn Beck use today.

    And their truly mindless disciples.

    Today they target Muslims. Yesterday, today and tomorrow they also target Christians who don’t agree with their agenda of Unending Hate. They target Christians who say that Love Thy Neighbor doesn’t have an escape clause that says “unless he’s different enough that you can justify killing him” either through direct actions like the lynch Mob murder of Briseña Flores or Bill Sparkman,The Akisson Fox News inspired murders at the Unitarian Church in Knoxville, the Endless wars and their adjunct actions like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib… or by denying people health care.

    The Health Care Denial kills more Americans every month than died on 9/11 yet the same Socially Retarded Animated Sphincters who claim they can decide who is or is not a “Real” American and burn mosques, burn Korans, burn and dynamite and now shoot up Churches which disagree with their equally arrogant decisions of who is or is not a REAL Christian, championed Murder By Denial of Health Care as their rally point this time last year.

    They will never have that right, they will never have that authority. They’re the Real anti-American Terrorists and either need to stop, or be stopped.

  3. Brother Jonah says:

    I singled out the TeaBags because they’re the loudest and most consistent Hate Group in America today. It’s not a coincidence that they use Racist symbolism and outright Racist hate speech to fan the flames of their mobs, like Anti-Hispanic and Anti-Immigrant Hatred thinly disguised as “anti Immigration” and fly the Southern Cross Confederate Battle Flag, with their false claim that it’s “not hate, but heritage”
    A heritage of Hating people for THEIR Heritage so much that even today they make excuses for having held them in bondage, using the “states right” of Police Powers to enforce denying PEOPLE basic rights of Liberty from before their births based on the color of their skin and who their parents were.

    That flag of Hatred is every bit as racist, and every bit as much a symbol of Anti-American Terrorism as the Swastika Flag. It’s still used by Anti-American OTHER Terrorist Hate Groups like the Klan and the Minutemen.

    September 12th is Burn the Confederate Flag Day. I wonder how many TeaBags will actually defend THAT right to free expression?

    Probably about as many as would defend American rights to vote for whoever we want even if his father was from Africa.

    Or would actually use REAL American courage and defend the rights of people to build a community center that doesn’t reflect the TeaBag faith in the Almighty(dollar)

    Newt Gingrich, Lynch Mob Leader Extraordinaire, said that the Twin Towers were Americas Mecca and a religious site. What religion, exactly, is expressed by a marketplace, where the economies of whole nations can be bought and sold? Hmmmm…

    Sounds to me a lot more like the Money Changers only they built their OWN Temple, to greed, and want God to come to their Temple to Money and bow down. Or at least His priests. He’s got priests like Pat Robertson and Jack van Impe and Tim LeHaye doing it.

    Will the TeaBags actually defend MY religious freedom as a Christian to say that? How about if I interrupt one of their Religious TeaParty Money Worship Services like the Sarah Palin rally?

    I bet they’d display Typical Right Wing Courage and have me Arrested, same way the people who “heckled” the Divine Empress Sarah were.

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