GAINESVILLE , FL - The Rev. Terry Jones might as well have gone ahead with his media-hyped plans to burn a Quran (Koran), the Islamic Holy Book, in commemoration of the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
His message to the Arab and Islamic world—that Americans hate Islam and are an intolerant people—was already made loud and clear, thanks in a large part to the U.S. news media.
What Arabs and Muslims will not hear in the wake of the controversy is that most Americans found Jones's actions offensive, too.
The fact that leaders from across America—and even across the political spectrum—have uniformly denounced Jones, pastor of the 50-member Dove World Outreach Center, will not temper the mounting anger in the Arab and Muslim world.
Arabs and Muslims won’t understand that just because some fanatic in America says something stupid and racist doesn’t mean that Americans endorse it. It doesn’t matter that this obscure pastor eventually changed his mind in the face of a worldwide outcry.
Arabs and Muslims won’t understand that fine point because Americans are not really much different from them. When Osama Bin Laden’s disciples crashed their hijacked planes into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were quick to blame all Muslims.
The anger was deep. America as a nation spoke from both sides of its mouth, saying it supported religious freedom and opposed censorship, but also viewing Arabs and Muslims as a monolithic group. That’s why most Americans are on record saying they oppose plans by Muslims to renovate an Islamic center blocks from Ground Zero that would include a space where Muslims could worship and pray, even though they feel Muslims have a right to do so.
Some Americans might argue that Arabs and Muslims live in worlds oppressed by dictatorships, places where free speech is practically nonexistent. They might point out that the offenses that Arabs and Muslims complain about here in the United States take place every day in the Arab and Muslim world. The oppression of a minority religion is more pronounced in the Arab and Muslim world than it is in the United States. Muslims can go door to door and give away free Qurans and try to convert Christians to Islam, but Christians who try that in the Islamic world could—and do—get killed.
But Arabs and Muslims might counter to Americans that the free speech America brags about is not so free at all. Free speech is severely restricted in America for minority groups like Arabs and Muslims. Bigotry is on the rise in America, too. There is a glass wall that prevents Arabs and Muslims, for example, from entering many of the nation’s greatest professions, such as the mainstream news media.
Let me just correct my readers here who will counter this statement by pointing to Fareed Zakaria and tell me (for the millionth time) “Fareed Zakaria is an Arab who has risen to the highest ranks of American journalism.”
Fareed Zakaria is not and Arab. He is an Indian Muslim, and that is where a major part of the problem rests. Muslims and Arabs are different. There are 4.5 million Arabs in America and only 45 percent of them are actually Muslim. And there are 7 million Muslims in America and only 22 percent of them are Arab.
We don’t really know the precise count because the U.S. Census refuses to include “Arab” as a category on its forms. Census forms do list 29 other ethnic and racial groups that include three listings for African Americans, five for Hispanics, and many for Native Americans and Asians.
In fact, in the this nine-year debate about the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, there will be much focus on “Muslims” and very little focus on “Arabs.”
Many Americans tell me often how much they hate me, not because I am Arab but because they think I am Muslim. The fact that I am orthodox Christian, raised Lutheran, doesn’t seem to matter. That President Barack Obama is not Muslim doesn’t seem to bother the 22 percent of Americans who think he is a Muslim and the 46 percent of Americans who say they don’t know what he is. (I always say Americans are the most educated people in the world but the least educated about the world.)
I remember one woman after Sept. 11 coming up to me and saying, “I can't believe you abandoned your Christian faith to become an Arab.”
Arabs and Muslims are not much different, either. The fact that I am a Palestinian born in America who speaks English and only a little Arabic is a cause of great alarm for Arabs and Muslims who use that to discriminate against me and others like me. They find the fact that my first language is not Arabic offensive and write some of the most ignorant and racist comments, worse than those written against Arabs and Muslims by the extremist right-wing in this country.
Americans who defend Jones’s threat claim that Muslims have burned Bibles, too. I don’t recall any such incidents. But, is claiming that someone else does bad things a good defense for a bad thing you are doing?
What the Arab and Muslim world should recognize is that America is no different than they are. Both suffer censorship issues. Both experience racism and bigotry. Both are confused about simple topics. And both sides have extremists who spew venomous hatred and use violence to achieve political goals.
Somewhere in the Arab and Muslim world is an Arab-Muslim version of Terry Jones who is doing the exact same thing without much fanfare.
Ray Hanania, a Palestinian-American columnist and radio talk show host in Chicago, won the New America Media Award for Best Ethnic American Columnist in 2007.