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The Twin Towers

If Michelangelo is considered a computer virus, then it dismantles the notion of posterity. Why is it that young people who were children on September 11, 2001 will remember that date but not substantial chunks of other pasts? For a generation that believes reality shows have always existed, how will they view the burning of the Quran?

Amnesia

Time is not factored in here. The Michelangelo reference comes from a study conducted by two academics at a US university. Students who had recently enrolled did not know who the artist was. There were other results – Beethoven is a dog, John McEnroe appears in ads and has no connection with tennis, reality shows have always been there, Germany was never divided and Czechoslovakia did not exist.

The Mindset List is compiled by Beloit College professors, Tom McBride and Ron Nief. The questions are updated to include social, political and cultural events that shape a generation. However, these become dated and annually there are new inputs, timed from the year of the student’s birth. “Then we present the ideas to every 18-year-old whose attention we can get and we wait for the ‘mindset moment’—the blank stare that comes back at you that makes you realize they have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Since there are references to pop culture as well, one would imagine the longevity simply due to its accessible nature. It is frightening not because it reveals ignorance, but it wipes out the generators of data while continuing to use the data. In a wired world the genesis is rooted in several decades and even centuries of scientific discoveries upon which it has been built. Music, art, literature, sports and even nationalism exist and are in fact prominently displayed on billboards, but the inventors and pioneers have been blanked out.

We are forced to think about the immensity of forgetfulness and how memory is reduced to memorabilia. History is no more about origin but action replay. The oral tradition of information has been replaced with media murmurs and the numbing of senses through constant repetition of peripheral issues. Chances are that those born in 2001 will remember 9/11, but not Iraq and Afghanistan, that is if the American establishment lets them forget.

Opportunism

While societies that have been colonised will retain memories, they will also have internalised aspects of such colonial concepts. Contemporary colonialism does not possess the ability to last or even feels the need to. The aggressiveness is tinged with the cartoon-strip quality of Robin Hood.

Political leaders are, therefore, not much different from the students. Their memories are selective and they ride on the wave of any movement that conforms to their political ends.

Rev.Terry Jones is not an isolated opportunist. He is but a small cog in the wheel that is keeping American xenophobia in motion. Does anyone have a count of the number of Qurans that are burned or destroyed in drone attacks in civilian areas? How many are destroyed when Muslims bomb their own mosques in terrorist attacks?

The ‘International Burn-a-Quran Day’ movement gathered momentum not due to the First Amendment that protects the rights of American citizens to freedom of speech, but because it is a handy tool to express concern while firing the gun from the pastor’s shoulders.

The President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, says, “This is a bonanza for Al Qaeda and could increase recruitment of individuals willing to blow themselves up in American or European cities.”

To begin with, it is disingenuous to tie up the Al Qaeda with the anti-US sentiments in many parts of the Muslim world. Has the US arrested the supposed brain behind 9/11? Do we hear much about the search for Osama bin Laden? If Saudi Arabia is reportedly sponsoring the movements in Afghanistan, the Northern areas of Pakistan and even Iraq, why has America always gone soft on it? Obama and his administration know that the real deal lies in the Af-Pak policy; they let it go and they have to face the pressing issues back home.

When this is clearly an intitiative against a particular group of believers, and the actual act of burning has less significance than the buildup, the predators are calling themselves victims. Gen. David Petraeus is more concerned about the impact of video images, much as a great screen director would be about the box office results of a magnum opus. He is worried about anti-US extremists: “We’re concerned that the images from the burning of a Quran would be used in the same way that extremists used images from Abu Ghraib — that they would in a sense be indelible. They would be used by those who wish us ill, to incite violence and to enflame public opinion against us and against our mission here in Afghanistan, as well as our missions undoubtedly around the world.”

I am not quite sure who the pastor is here – the general or Terry Jones. The images of Abu Ghraib were real and vicious, just as US occupation in other territories is. If he could count, then he would know from figures as to how many have been killed in those nations by militants as well as troops of the US and its allies. If it would sway public opinion, then it has worked the other way round too. Why would an unknown pastor become an important figure who can declaim, “How much do we back down? How many times do we back down? Maybe it’s time to send a message to radical Islam that we will not tolerate their behaviour”?

What is this radical Islam? The immediate provocation is the proposed building of an Islamic Centre near the Ground Zero site. Rev. Jones has been happily playing a truth or dare game, getting into discussions with imams and exchanging promises, real or imagined. He says he will withdraw if they decide not to build the Cordoba Centre. Then he retracts. Does any sensible person for a moment believe that someone from Florida who will not be physically affected and who was nowhere in sight when the issue was raked up earlier is of any consequence?

It would be dangerous to term his actions innocent, though. He is speaking the language of the establishment and is ideologically important. It is quite likely that the mainstream media has helped along simply because the anniversary of 9/11 cannot go unsung without a controversy. An inert, unconstructed building would not quite do the trick. This is about the president performing a canny balancing act to regain lost ground when he initially gave the feudal nod for the Islamic Centre; he now has to go along with a church. He needs to show that his history is not really his history.

Here he is in complete sync with the real self: “He (Jones) says he’s someone who is motivated by his faith, I hope he listens to those better angels and understands that this is a destructive act that he’s engaging in.”

Better angels? Better than whom or whose?

Holy-unholy

Obama modestly wonders, “If he’s listening, I just hope he understands that what he’s proposing to do is completely contrary to our values and this country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance.”

Apparently, what happens in America stays in America, for he also states, “As a very practical matter, as commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States, I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan.”

Is this about religious freedom or about freedom to protect American interests? When troops are sent out they are not provided a won’t-be-killed warranty. Why will this endanger the troops more than when they shell those countries and face retaliatory or provocative fire?

The US colonial idea works at the level of both Islamophobia and tolerance. Hillary Clinton has been showering praises to those who have been voicing their discomfort over this burning issue. These are the visible peaceniks. Most Americans may not come out in the streets but are unlikely to support this behaviour. The reason for visible signs is to somehow connect the incident to patriotism.

Nations that have nothing to do with 9/11 join in or are forced to. The Vatican has found the proposed act outrageous and the Iranian ayatollah wants the pastor arrested. Most interestingly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an unrelated but well-timed moment, honoured the Danish cartoonist who caricatured Prophet Muhammad at an award ceremony to honour his achievements for freedom of speech. She described Kurt Westergaard’s bravery despite “fear for his life since the publication of the cartoons in 2005”. It is a long time for Germany to risk the lives of such brave soldiers of speech.

In India, Cardinals and maulanas are huddling over their common aversion to this event. While the Catholic says, “I can’t imagine a man who claims to follow Christianity ever thinking of burning a holy book”, the Muslim cleric says, “The Quran never asked the 9/11 plotters to plough loaded planes into the Twin Towers. They were the misguided merchants of death and their heinous crime should not be blamed on a book which Allah revealed as a guide not just to Muslims but to humanity”.

This is known to believers and there appears to be no reason to preach to the congregation. It is obvious they are being swept along with the flow to meet the dead-end of the US-manufactured dam.

There are some with overarching facile liberalism who will say that Muslims are in denial about the culprits of 9/11. Muslims across the globe would not have given it much thought had the unfortunate attacks not been forced down every available electronic medium and newsprint. Do not forget that like most people in economically poor countries, they too look to America as some sort of financial haven. They did their jobs as do the Americans and Europeans in several Muslim countries. The difference is that the latter are treated as superior beings even if they are serving coffee at the Starbucks franchise and the former are suspect. This after 9/11.

So, whose history will be recorded and who will remember that Beethoven is not a dog and Barack Obama does not have Hussein as a middle name? Perhaps, Michelangelo the computer virus can help spread selective lies.

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at kaaghaz.kalam@gmail.com

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Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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