Religion Does Its Worst

By Roger Cohen, New York Times

So Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who organized a Koran burning on March 20, wanted “to stir the pot.” Mission accomplished. Perhaps he’d care to explain himself to the family of Joakim Dungel, a 33-year-old Swede slaughtered at the U.N. mission in Mazar-i-Sharif by Afghans whipped into frenzy through Jones’s folly.

On reflection, no, there’s nothing Jones can explain to Dungel’s family, or the other U.N. staffers murdered. Jones is not in the explanation business. He’s a zealot. How else to describe a Christian who interprets his faith not as grounded in love and compassion but as a mission to incite hatred toward Islam?

There’s no discussion with a bigot like this: You can’t be argued out of something you haven’t been argued into in the first place.

Jones is not alone in this Islamophobic campaign in the United States, which is what is most disturbing. But before I get to that, let’s talk about the murderous Afghan mob and its enablers.

Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, was one such enabler. He was a fool to allude to Jones’s stunt, performed before a few dozen acolytes. Why elevate this vile little deed and so foster mayhem?

Karzai is a man who will stop at nothing to disguise his weakness. His benefactors and underwriters — the West — are those he must scorn to survive.

The foolishness did not stop with Karzai: The imams of Mazar chose to use Friday prayers to stir up the crowd. As for the killing itself — whether by infiltrated Taliban insurgents or not — it was a heinous crime against innocent people and should be denounced throughout the Islamic world, in mosques and beyond. I’m still waiting.

Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, did not honor the dead by failing to denounce the perpetrators of the crime in a statement. He was right to call Jones’s Koran burning “insane and totally despicable;” he should have used the same words about the slaughter of his men. Not to do so was craven, a glaring omission.

All this madness began at the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida, home to Jones’s mini-church. As my colleague Lizette Alvarez chronicled, an unrepentant Jones believes Islam and the Koran only serve “violence, death and terrorism.” That’s as dumb as equating Christianity with Psalm 137 that says the “little ones” of the enemy should be dashed against stones.

But such incendiary views about a world religion now find wide expression in the United States where “stealth jihad” has become a recurrent Republican theme.

Several Republicans, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Representative Peter King, have found it politically opportune to target “creeping Shariah in the United States” at a time when the middle name of the president is Hussein. (A Newsweek poll last year found that 52 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement that “Barack Obama sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world.”)

I spent time last year with Paul Blair, a pastor in small-town Oklahoma, a state where Islamophobia is rampant. He told me Muslims were “not here to coexist but to take over.” He told me there are only two possibilities in Islam — “the house of Islam or the house of war.”

That sort of message is going out in a lot of U.S. churches. It’s dangerous. Already, Muslims are victims in 14 percent of religious discrimination cases when they make up 1 percent of the population.

In Europe, too, rightist politicians peddle divisive anti-Muslim bigotry, with some success.

Muslims have work to do. They should have the courage to denounce unequivocally the Mazar murder. Jihadists have too often deformed a great religion with insufficient rebuke. From Egypt to Pakistan, it must be understood that Islam cannot at once be a political force and above criticism. Once you enter the democratic political arena on a religious platform, your beliefs are no longer a private matter but up for legitimate attack. Pakistan’s violence-inducing blasphemy laws are an affront to this principle.

Jones, by contrast, lives in a nation where the law defends even his folly. I’m a free-speech absolutist and so I support that. But he must examine his conscience: How is it consistent with religious faith to stir hatred and killing? And how can the Islamophobes, spreading poison, justify their grotesque caricature of Islam in the thinly veiled pursuit of political gain?

This column is full of anger, I know. It has no heroes. I’m full of disgust, writing after a weekend when religious violence returned to Northern Ireland with the murder of a 25-year-old Catholic policeman, Ronan Kerr, by dissident republican terrorists. Religion has much to answer for, in Gainesville and Mazar and Omagh.

I see why lots of people turn to religion — fear of death, ordering principle in a mysterious universe, refuge from pain, even revelation. But surely it’s meaningless without mercy and forgiveness, and surely its very antithesis must be hatred and murder. At least that’s how it appears to a nonbeliever.

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A version of this op-ed appeared in print on April 5, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune.

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