I have no doubt that during the forthcoming “International Burn a Quran Day”, on the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the pages of many Qur’ans, probably in translation, will meet fire. Fanatics, such as Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center, Florida, whom planned the event, will celebrate their quite pagan ritual of purification through fire of what they see as a demonic religion which is “causing billions of people to go to hell”. They will be unaware that, in reality, they ‘share’ aspects of Islam with millions of others. They, in a certain sense, are ‘crypto-Muslims’.
Burning a copy (presumably in translation) of the Qur’an may appear to some to be a courageously defiant act that is aimed to offend Muslims. Nonetheless, if it happens to be a person’s deep desire to watch copies of the Qur’an burn, there is no need to wait for the 9/11 anniversary book burning – just visit Singapore! Yes, in this city of religious harmony and strict control over possible religiously heated controversy, Qur’ans are regularly burnt. The culprits? Muslims.
As I have personally witnessed more than once recently, at al Istighfar mosque for instance, Arabic as well as translated copies of the Qur’an have met fire. Muslims, at least some within the Shafi’i school of thought, burn the Qur’an to dispose of the copies (although other Muslims disagree with this system).
Pastor Terry Jones and those who follow him in this ritual, which they likely feel to be cathartic on some level, are in reality performing what some Muslims would see as a correct action: properly disposing of copies of the Qur’an that they do not want. In other words, the offensive nature of Pastor Jones’ book burning party would lose much of its intended punch amongst some Muslims, including many who live in Singapore.
Anthropologically speaking, I find this ironic situation a perfect example of how many Americans, Australians, and Europeans today construct the discourse of Islam and form their epistemologies about it. If we analyze both the “International Burn a Quran Day” together with the many polemic arguments over the (not in) Ground Zero mosque in New York, we may find some strong epistemological similarities between the discourse of Islam these people propose and the discourse of Islam that some Muslim extremists propose. The people involved in these actions embrace the idea that Islam is a ‘thing’, or better, a conceptual phenomenon representing a material reality.
Consequently, these individuals think that attacking what they perceive as prominent symbols of Islam, such as the Qur’an, mosques and minarets, or protesting and parading with dogs and pigs, may have a nearly magical, exorcising and ‘desecrating ’ power against that ‘thing’ Islam, which in their minds symbolizes evil incarnate.
This kind of discourse is more common than we can imagine; the reason being that we are still educated since childhood to think within a faulty epistemology, as Gregory Bateson noticed in the 1950s. Indeed, in his last book he wrote
Language continually asserts by the syntax of subject and predicate that “things” somehow “have” qualities and attributes. A more precise way of talking would insist that the “things” are produced, are seen as separate from other “things”, and are made “real” by their internal relationship and by their behavior in relationship with other things and with the speaker (pp. 67)
What Bateson, through this example, wished to emphasise is that ‘things’ do not have qualities per-se. They are not ‘agent’ in themselves, but rather they are produced within a dynamic of relationships, both internally and with other “things” of the same category, as well as with the actor or agent ‘making’ them in the process.
Islam, as a “thing”, does not have, of course, qualities and attributes, since it can only be produced (for Muslims of course, by God, and for others maybe by the devil or by humans). Islam is different from other realities (such as “peace”, “war”, “violence”, “terrorism” or even “shari’a”) and it is made ‘real’ only through the way in which people make sense of it, both in thought and action. This means that Pastor Jones and its followers become, in a certain sense, akin to Muslims themselves, albeit per negationem, since they engage in ‘making’ Islam, in believing that Islam is a ‘thing’, and thus ‘defining’ Islam.
But what kind of ‘Islam’ do these people make? To use prototypes to illustrate, both bin-Laden (the terrorist) and Pastor Jones (the Qur’an barbecuer) not only share the fact that they believe that Islam ‘has’ qualities and attributes in an active form, but they also express it through the same system: connecting description and explanation through tautology.
Tautology, in the simplest terms, states that ‘if P is true, then P is true’. In other words, as Bateson explains, ‘all that the tautology affords is connections between prepositions. The creator of the tautology stakes his reputation on the validity of those connections’ (Bateson, p. 77). Tautology contains no information whatever and the explanation which derives from it contains only information provided by the description.
If we look carefully on how, for instance, bin-Laden and Pastor Jones describe and explain Islam we can easily recognize a tautology. Indeed, the basis of what Pastor Jones says is, ‘If Islam is evil, then Islam is evil’ and for bin-Laden the message is ‘if Islam is Jihad, then Islam is jihad’. Logically we can consider both of them, alongside the many whom make Islam through the same epistemological processes, strong believers in tautological Islam.
Unfortunately, among the many versions and traditions existing of Islam, this is definitely the emptiest.