Burning the Qur ‘an: Why Does it Make Muslims Mad?

On March 20, 2011, Terry Jones’ ultra-conservative Dove Outreach Church held a mock trial of the Qur’ an. After finding Islam’s holy book “guilty,” members of the tiny Gainesville, Florida, congregation watched as pastor Wayne Sapp burned a copy. Western media ignored the church’s provocative deed, but on March 24, Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a formal complaint and brought the Qur’ an burning to his countrymen’s attention. Within a few days angry Afghans initiated a series of bloody reprisals against symbols of Western/ American influence. Hence, on April 1, stirred up by three mullahs at Friday prayer, a mob, 20,000 strong, assaulted the United Nations compound in the southern town of Mazar-i-Sharif. After overrunning police guards, the protesters broke into the building, where they killed “four UN guards from Nepal and then three foreign workers … a Norwegian, a Romanian, and a Swede.” On Saturday, the second, and Sunday, the third, angry mobs took to the streets of Kandahar. Waving Taliban flags, screaming “death to America” and “death to the slaves of the infidels,” the rioters headed toward the United Nations offices, seeking to slaughter the staff. After a series of violent confrontations with the police at least twenty-one people, including four police officers, lay dead.

Western commentators found Muslims’ bloody defense of their faith utterly repugnant. In a typical statement, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, exclaimed that “along with all Southern Baptists, I condemn the burning of any religious book. That is not the mark of a good neighbor, a good citizen, or a civilized being.” Nonetheless, he added, “I also condemn the riot and the killings of human beings in supposed retaliation for the burning of the Qur’ an. In civilized society one does not kill people for disrespecting the symbols or instruments of one’s faith.” Likewise, while “deploring any action that shows disrespect to any religious faith,” American ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, insisted “that to attack and kill innocent people in response to the deplorable act of one individual is outrageous, and an affront to decency and dignity.”

In other words, insulting someone’s sacred beliefs constitutes bad manners, but is hardly something that warrants death and destruction. This perspective, so common among Westerners, is, however, the product of a civilization that has been thoroughly secularized and which now places greater emphasis on the sanctity of human life than the preservation of religious truth. And it is a point of view utterly at odds with Muslim thinking, to which we must now turn.

Today, Muslims feel justified in using violence as a means to protect their religion from even the slightest hint of mockery or criticism. As an example, one need only look back to 1989/90, when Anglo-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie belittled the Prophet Mohammed, his wives, companions, and the Qur’ an itself. Upon learning about the book’s blasphemous message, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a celebrated fatwa sentencing Rushdie and the book’s translators to death. More recently (2005), after Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons depicting Mohammed as a suicide bomber and mocking the notion that such people will enjoy seventy-two virgins in heaven, Muslim mobs went on a rampage all across the planet. Typifying their fury, hundreds of Muslims in London, England, marched to the Danish Embassy waving placards that read “behead those who insult the Prophet” and “free speech, go to hell.”

At this point, the average Westerner, accustomed to religious jibes and jokes aimed at Christianity, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the pope, will ask a simple question: “Why are Muslims so touchy about criticism and so inclined to use violence against those who engage in it?” Let me offer an answer to that vital query: Muslims just know, beyond a shadow of doubt,  that Islam is true, and they are sure that failure to follow its teachings will cause chaos in this life then hellfire in the life to come. Killing is a small price to pay if it will stop those calamities—especially the latter—from taking place. Bearing that point in mind, we can understand why the enraged Afghans described earlier went on a homicidal rampage to protest Terry Jones’ Qur’an burning. If one does believe that “the Qur’an is the final revelation sent by God to humanity,” as they do, “the holy Scripture which guides humanity to being both prosperous in this world and in the hereafter,” then murdering its foes is a lesser evil than submitting to soul-destroying blasphemy.

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