Burning and Building

Should a building that isn’t a mosque be built on a site that isn’t all that near to where the Twin Towers once stood? Should a pastor of a church that no-one had ever heard of until recently be allowed to burn some books that he himself can’t read, but that folk he has never met often do read? As the frenzy of the past week quietens, this is not yet another article concerning either case. For herein lies the precisely the point: what could possibly be said regarding either case that was not obvious right from the beginning? This is about propaganda and distraction.

The anguish, airtime, and column inches that both issues (Islamic centre building in New York and Qur’an burning in Florida) have commanded has been so excessive that one wonders what was the purpose of all the hype. Some may think conspiratorially, and ask whose interests have been served by the frenzy. Did the issues hijack the media, or did the media hijack the issues? For all the depiction of contention, neither issue should be a battleground for meaningful dispute. Though the emotions involved in both cases are doubtless sincere, the agonising that has been stoked-up over these non-debates has served only to distract people from the many real issues that may actually affect their lives. The heated agonising merely represents the illusion of debate.

Sensitive though both issues are, neither are really controversial – they are simply depicted as such. The anxiety on the part of those who have suffered from violence prosecuted in the name of Islam at the prospect of an Islamic centre being built in the same neighbourhood as the Twin Towers is understandable. Yet of course the centre should be built. How could it be otherwise? If you don’t believe in freedom of religious expression there, then you don’t believe in freedom of religious expression at all. So too with the ‘book burning’: Though the pastor Terry Jones’ actions would have been deeply offensive to many people, of course he had the right to deface or destroy his own property however he wishes. Though his actions may be justifiably despised, of course no one should anyone force him to stop expressing himself how he wishes with his own property.

Indeed, it is precisely the obviousness of both ‘contentious’ issues that is the problem. They both appear to have been made contentious through their portrayal: One case should not have received press coverage from the beginning, but was catapulted into the limelight and snowballed thereafter; whereas the other should not have been covered in such a misleading way. Likewise, the sustained coverage and constant denigration of the Islamic centre as ‘controversial’ has only led people to think that it should be controversial. Still, the endless and all-consuming non-debates drag on. Who next will weigh in to refuel the cycle of non-troversy? The only aspect of even moderate interest is the connect between these two otherwise separate cases: that some of those who have voiced opposition to the right to build an Islamic centre are the same types who at other times cling doggedly to their own absolute rights, such as the right to firearm ownership. Likewise, some who were vocal in stressing the absoluteness of the right to freedom of expression in the case of building a religious centre, thought little of the pastor’s own right to express himself – no matter how revolting.

We have not heard the last of the ‘controversial Ground zero mosque’, and more revelations will surface. The finances behind the Islamic centre, the content of the religious instruction when it opens, the links and affiliations that the centre’s staff have: ‘controversy’ will continue. Yet the net result from both cases is that chattering publics are consumed by such non-issues: debating the obvious, pent up and charged with emotion over such cases, but diverted and therefore neglectful of genuine scandals. Agonising over issues that are uncontroversial serves only to distract publics from issues whose controversy is justifiable. Neither the ‘Mosque’ building nor the Qur’an burning are manufactured scenarios, but both were blown out of all proportion. Now the ‘debate’ subsides, one is left to wonder what is was all about. When people debate the obvious, they are hardly in a position to challenge the status quo.

RICHARD PHELPS is a Research Fellow at Quilliam (a London-based think tank). His main research focus is on Islamist movements and Islamist dissent in the Arabic speaking world. He can be reached at: Richard.Phelps@Quilliamfoundation.org