The maligning of Islamic civilization in the US

A disturbing aspect of the Temple Mount Faithful’s plans to destroy the Aqsa Mosque is the general tolerance for such actions in the US, a product of the debate about Islamic civilization’s "stagnation and backwardness."

American debate about the protection of religious sites and groups has spawned efforts to hold accountable those who persecute religious minorities or destroy sacred monuments. Two instances in the 1990s stand out: One was criticism of the Taliban government for destroying an ancient Buddhist statue. American condemnation here, in part, isolated the Taliban internationally. The US referenced this violation as part of the justification for invading Afghanistan. Another example is the pressure the US exerted on China to end repression of the Tibetan Buddhists. Congressional debate over sanctions on China is tempered only by America’s extensive trade with it.

The US has the power to pressure the Sharon government to arrest those plotting Aqsa’s destruction. The latter have expressed such intents; their philosophical forefathers actually set fire to it. So, what is stopping the US from protecting the mosque?

Notwithstanding messianic Christian support for George Bush, an important reason for silence over the threat to al Aqsa is that even mainstream commentators in America see the Islamic world as a monolith of violence, devoid of space that is sacred or significant. I am not referring to polemicists like Ann Coultier, who argue for the bombing of Muslim holy cities. Opinions that maintain American indifference or hostility toward Islamic settings also come from the likes of Ted Koppel and Dan Rather.

Events in the Muslim world reported often in America are the violent ones. In respected outlets, such as CNN and the New York Times, descriptions of Muslims ooze with epithets like "extremist," "fanatic," and "terrorist." Here, Muslims allegedly act only when their blood boils; media, particularly television, explain this alleged psychosis by photographing Muslims in habitats of extreme deprivation. Americans see images of Muslims in deserts, crowded markets, and tents. These teach the audience that Islamic societies barely have escaped pre-historic times. Why should one care about their shrines?

The Islamic high civilization that built the Aqsa mosque and advanced science and art is missing from American consciousness. If Americans assume that Muslim societies are now backwards, they might conclude that the Islamic past is a hindrance to Muslims and not worth preserving.

This premise guided the American military in the Iraq wars. American bombs smashed several mosques that were centuries old. Despite pleas from archeological experts to the Pentagon to protect Iraq’s cultural treasures, American officers allowed looters to rob Iraq’s Islamic and pre-Islamic antiquities. Politicians, academics, and media have raised few resonant questions about the military’s indifference to and destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage.

The vulnerability of Aqsa receives even less consideration in American coverage. While journalists worldwide addressed the threat messianic Jews pose to the Haram al Sharif, America’s leading daily reported that a vague "threat of violence" made Israel prevent observant Jews from performing their religious obligations on the Temple Mount. Giving extensive background about the significance of the Holy Site to Judaism, Joseph Berger of the NY Times News Service (7/28/04) does not suggest that the Temple Mount Faithful are a threat. They "simply wanted to pray" close to the "Temple Site." Ignoring Aqsa’s history, Berger seems to belittle Muslim claims to it; he writes, "While this is among the holiest Islamic sites, it is where Jews believe the temple stood." The presence of mosques is not so valid as a Jewish belief in their claim.

Given these perceptions about Islamic civilization, how should an American observer react to the threat posed to the Haram Al Sharif?

This indifference to Muslim interests in Jerusalem will endanger both Israel and the United States.

As Israeli officials have noted, an attack upon Aqsa could bring Israel into conflict with a billion Muslims worldwide. Certainly, Israeli civilians will bear the brunt of Palestinian Muslim indignation at Aqsa’s ruin.

The US might experience retaliation for its support of Israel. America’s destruction of Iraq in 1991 was one of al Qaeda’s reasons for attacking America. Many Muslims did not consider "Desert Storm" a valid reason for such enmity. However, if messianic Jews harm Muslim holy sites with American consent, the US will sink in political quicksand. One possibility is another attack in the US. Another is that Washington’s allies in the Muslim world could be deposed. The governments that come to power promising retribution for the loss of Muslim holy sites will make Khomeini’s Iran seem like a close ally.

Americans of all persuasions, Muslims, and Jews need to add historical depth to the debate about Islam. If the trend continues, an inter-communal conflict in Jerusalem could escalate into a regional war where Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others at the epicenter of the conflict but who do not hold messianic sentiments will suffer under the weight of others’ prejudices and indifference.