U.S. Culture Wars Matter in the Middle East, Too

Forget about the protests against the mosque near Ground Zero; the threat to burn the Quran on Sept. 11 is what could incite serious conflict in the Middle East.

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Muslims at Aug. 4, 2010, protest in New Delhi against planned burning
of the Quran in U.S. (Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images)

Americans often fail to understand the ways in which domestic debates about Islam resonate beyond borders. In the Middle East, U.S. cultural quarrels can at times appear to be needlessly confusing. On other occasions they threaten to provoke real confrontation. The behavior of Terry Jones -- the pastor of Florida's Dove Church, who is planning to burn copies of the Quran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks -- and the bickering over the cultural center near Ground Zero provide two examples of how America's clashes over Islam play out in unexpected ways.

In Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad and other Middle East capitals, there is a general understanding that cultural conflict always carries the potential of being fought not with placards and facile talking heads but with bullets and missiles. Victims of religious bigotry know that the values associated with tolerance and secularism are seen by extremists as inconvenient obstacles to conflict.

In Egypt, Islamist fanatics earlier this year killed members of the Coptic Church for no other reason than their religion. Settlers in Israel see the confiscation of Palestinian land as a holy mission and have had no problem with killing anyone who gets in the way -- including their own prime minister. In 1982 Lebanon, Christian Phalange militiamen were supported by Israeli authorities in the slaughter of Palestinian women and children in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Shiites have killed Sunnis, and vice versa, in greater numbers than we can count.

Regarding the "Ground Zero mosque" debate, intellectuals I speak with from Cairo to Beirut tell me this: The location of a cultural center is a zoning dispute cum midterm-election ploy trying to pass itself off as a cosmic battle. In this tiff, there is space for elegance, generosity and flexibility. There is general amazement that the issue is taken so seriously in the U.S.

"Both sides are wrong on this issue. Of course America is not at war with Islam. Yes, Muslims have the right to build a mosque on Ground Zero," Mohamed Selim El-Awa, the former secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, told The Root. "But it is not necessary. They can have a center or a mosque anywhere else. It symbolizes nothing. Nobody should want to offend."

This view is repeated from the West Bank to Saudi Arabia. "Muslims do not aspire for a mosque next to the Sept. 11 cemetery," said Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, general manager of Al-Arabiya television. "The mosque [near Ground Zero] is not an issue for Muslims, and they [had] not heard of it until the shouting became loud between the supporters and the objectors, which is mostly an argument between non-Muslim U.S. citizens!"

The threatened bonfire burning of the Quran, however, is a different matter -- with more severe connotations. Even if undertaken by Jones, a Florida bigot with a minuscule congregation, most of whom likely could not find the Middle East on a map, it is seen as an act of religious warfare. Domestically, the Dove Church may already feel like old news, but in the Middle East, the resonance is deep, clear and threatening.

"Attacking the religious symbols of others is a kind of terrorism," the Rev. Andrea Zaki Stephanous, vice-general director of the Protestant Church of Egypt, told The Root. "It dehumanizes and is a form of violence."

Zaki believes that the first people to suffer in such a conflict would be in the Middle East. In 2005, after caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad were published by a Danish newspaper, churches were burned and innocents killed throughout the Muslim world. It took years for Denmark to repair its diplomatic image.

As U.S. midterm debates over Islam heat up, we would do well to realize that in a globalized world, cultural conflict is not just about getting elected but also carries the potential to provoke serious confrontation abroad.

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