Today we have a political crisis created by a single American citizen proposing to do something which will outrage a billion people. These billion people routinely burn American flags which can be seen almost every week on the TV news. It doesn’t create much interest here in the US because it is just a symbol or perhaps because it happens so often we have gotten used to it and just ignore it. Such things are tolerated here and even more disgusting things like making sacred Christian symbols out of shit and putting them in art museums and calling it art. It is encouraged here in this country to do outrageous things because it expands our consciousness— supposedly— and defines the limits of legal tolerance. But all of these things happen within a Western liberal, legalistic society which, as opposed to other societies, defines religious morality and legal responsibilities as separate entities. Other, non-Western societies would legally condemn to death people within their legal culture who did similar things to their sacred symbols.
A problem arises today because some American has announced he is going to exercise his legal ability to start a small fire and burn a book. If this same person were to burn an American flag or a Bible very few would get upset. Because millions of American flags have been manufactured and become old and threadbare they have at some point been thrown away or burned. No one gets the least upset if it is done with a modicum of respect. The same can be said for the billions of Bibles which have been printed and outlived their usefulness as a book. They are burned and replaced with new ones.
The problem arises today because this particular proposed book burning is being done publicly to commemorate the death of 3000 Americans murdered on September 11, 2001. The proposed book burning has been picked up by the mass media and by the foreign press of the countries where these books are sacred and from which the murderers originated. The symbolic burning of a book is apparently more offensive to those people than the willful homicide of these thousands of civilians attending to their mundane pursuits.
I don’t know what the accepted procedures are for handling very old books of this particular title are but obviously since it has been in circulation for over a thousand years many of them have been disposed of in some way. It probably isn’t the burning of the book which is the real problem. The problem is that it is seen, by those billion people, as an intentional symbolic desecration of their book and that is absolutely unacceptable. It would seem that the way the ceremony is carried out would make a difference and that if it were done respectfully there shouldn’t be a problem. Of course American flags being burned and stamped upon with feet isn’t exactly respectful or perhaps it is – in a perverse way – because it is the only way for those people to display displeasure with the US.
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington 1996 is the classic modern geopolitical book on political relationships in today’s world. It is helpful in understanding why people of different cultures have trouble getting along with each other. It was written shortly after the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. The book lays out the new international scene which replaced the USSR and its Communism versus USA and its Capitalism world view with a multicultural system based on ancient cultures. The most compelling part of these old cultures when deadly conflict arises, Huntington asserts, is religion.
Modern Western civilization arose out of Christianity, especially that part of it originally controlled by the Catholic Church. Huntington defines it as a unique culture and that part of Christianity which has been Orthodox for almost two thousand years is a separate civilization. He splits Christianity even further and defines Latin American as a new civilization. He defines people of the book which would include all of Islam including Indonesia as a self contained civilization. China, India, Japan are also major civilizations in his geopolitical scheme. He claims there will never be complete trust between people of the different civilizations because they are too different.
The problem today is with the culture and book I will leave unnamed because that’s the way they themselves would prefer it. The people of that culture see themselves as being at war with the West and they see the West as being Christian Crusaders invading their land. They see no problem with building a mosque very near the site of the mass homicide but they do see an affront to burning a book commemorating that event. In their view a single pound of this very special paper being burned is more symbolically charged than 3000 people being burned alive. Assuming that each of those billion people has a copy of their book it would amount to a billion copies now in their existence. Surely with that many some are lost every day, some in accidental house fires, so it isn’t the loss of a single book which is the problem. It is because it is going to be destroyed to commemorate this particular event which they consider an appropriate event. Almost no one from that community has clearly and unequivocally condemned the murders. The slaughter of these people is always condemned with provisos that it was some sort of payback for American incursions into their territory. But there is unconditional condemnation of this potential commemorative book burning – even by the President of the United States. The proposed burning will not take place within their territory, so this isn’t a territorial issue it’s a symbolic issue.
For Americans used to seeing their national flag burned it is difficult to understand why other people should be so angry about their symbol being burned. But they are angry and they will without a doubt retaliate in some way. If that particular fool does burn the book he will probably end up with a pile of stones thrown at him which will rival the pyramids in size. Even his stated intention to burn their book will be remembered for a very long time and become a rallying point for their hatred of America.
Trust between civilizations will always be weak, according to Huntington and some conflict is inevitable. Attacking another civilizations symbols only weakens trust and makes whatever necessary relationships which must exist even more difficult. Symbols bind people together into civilizations and challenging those symbols strengthens their internal bonds and makes the violator into a clear enemy. Empowering people to hate you is as stupid as a human can get and should rate a Darwin Award.