The controversy surrounding a proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero created a perfect storm for opportunist right-wing clergy and political demagogues to exploit anti-Muslim hysteria in America. Then, a crackpot pastor from Florida decided to burn Qur'ans on the anniversary of 9/11.
The Rev. Terry Jones' bizarre idea dampened the rhetoric of the likes of Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck. To their credit, they did not want Mr. Jones to let that genie out. Sanity prevailed and the pastor called off his stunt.
Burning a sacred book - or any book - is wrong. It only alienates and creates hostility among people.
In 1933, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels led a campaign to burn books by Jewish writers. It started in a square across from Humboldt University in Berlin. Today, a plaque on the site quotes the prophetic words of German poet Heinrich Heine, who more than a century earlier had said: "There, where they burn books, they will in the end burn people."
Two out of three Americans have a negative view of Islam and oppose building an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, according to polls. The same ratio supported the war in Iraq. I wonder whether the people who were convinced of the presence of the weapons of mass destruction are buying a similar bill of goods.
Four weeks ago, my column on the cultural center generated a firestorm of responses. Nearly half of them took exception to my parallel between current Islamophobia and the treatment in America of various religious and ethnic minorities in the past. Here is one such letter from Robert Birner:
"Once again, your opinion shows your lack of empathy and respect for the country that gave you education and riches that your home country could never have given you. Go home. … Hell yes, there is Islamophobia. It is a RADICAL religion. There's so much death and suicide bombings … not to mention 9/11 … what the f--- do you expect? If it's so great, why do you suppose it's so disliked here? Bad rap? I don't think so. The truth IS the truth. God save you if Christians ever go radical and start strapping bombs to themselves and blowing up Mecca and Muslims."
Mr. Birner is on the outer fringes of Americans. But he and others with a negative view of Islam should not be ignored or brushed off. Muslims and their critics should sit down together and discuss their mutual anxieties and fears. Screaming in an echo chamber, where one hears only the reverberations of one's own voice, is not the answer.
And Muslims should engage those who have not had the opportunity to meet or interact with them. That happened at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo on the anniversary of 9/11, when an estimated 700 people showed up for a friendly conversation with members of the center.
Mr. Birner would have learned, if he had come, that Islam is a mosaic, not a monolith. Like Jews and Christians, Muslims hold a wide spectrum of opinions and interpretations about their religion. And like the followers of other religions, they strive to interpret and understand religion according to prevailing times.
He also would have learned that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have at times cooperated for the greater good of the societies in which they lived.
The proposed cultural center originally was to be named Cordoba House, after the southern Spanish city where, under the Moors, the three Abrahamic religions came together to spawn a dazzling civilization that flourished between the 7th and 15th centuries. That lesson was lost on Mr. Gingrich, the history professor.
We do not need some self-styled Richard the Lionheart to lead a latter-day crusade against Islam. We need understanding derived from civil discourse.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org