How is it that so many Christians who teach that God is Love spend so much of their time hating? You’d think it would be enough of a challenge—and a reward—to read the Gospel, contemplate its message, and live by its principles. But no. There have always been hard-core Bible bangers who try to make their reputations by denigrating, desecrating, even conflagrating others. The self-promoting preacher down in Florida who is getting global attention at the moment for his plan to stage “Burn a Koran Day” on September 11 is just the latest example. (Let’s not satisfy his boundless vanity by naming him in print.)
What Rev. Bonfire claims he’s trying to do is respond to the tactics of “Muslims,” as he sees them; and to hear him tell the story they’re all pretty much variations of the Taliban. When Mullah Omar and his friends in Al Qaeda ruled Afghanistan, after all, they were great smashers and burners of “infidel” symbols, from the ancient artworks in the Kabul museum to the towering statues of Buddha at Bamyan. When Al Qaeda’s operational masterminds targeted the World Trade Center in New York, they were after what they saw as symbols of Mammon. But that’s them, and this is about us. The problem with emulating your enemy's tactics is that you risk being infected with his way of thinking, and what we are seeing now from Gainesville to Ground Zero looks very much like the Christian Talibanization of America. A lot of the furor about the proposed holy-book burning has been focused on the risk that it will further inflame Muslim anger and inspire terrorists recruits abroad, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Barack Obama said on ABC this morning that the pastor's "stunt" is a "bonanza for Al Qaeda." In fact, what Rev. Bonfire represents is a kind of fundamentalist rot that threatens American confidence and American values much more than anything being cooked up in Kandahar or Waziristan.
Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, makes the point repeatedly that Osama bin Laden and his acolytes have no plan to govern, no real ideology. They distill everything to a simple message of humiliation, fear, and hate. In Wright’s stunningly reasonable and revelatory HBO documentary, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, his concluding argument is that the actions of the United States over the past nine years—the needless wars, the use of torture, the ascendance of bigotry—are following the script that Osama bin Laden and his éminence grise, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have written for us. “The Americans will terrorize themselves,” said bin Laden. “Al-Qaeda can’t destroy America,” says Wright. “Only we can do that to ourselves.”
Rev. Bonfire and his buddies, unfortunately, are right on cue. And what’s worse, they are building on a long heritage of hatred and abuse. It’s not like they had to invent the dark side of Judeo-Christian culture that they exploit. The precedents date back to the Inquisition and the Crusades, and they were brought up to date by the totalitarians of the mid-20th century. The scapegoating of Muslims in America today plays on fear, prejudice, ignorance, and pride with techniques honed to near perfection by the Nazis and the communists in the 1930s.
Don’t Be a Sucker, a remarkable little film produced by the U.S. War Department back in 1947 warned Americans about this stuff when memories of what made the Nazis the enemy were still fresh in the minds of the Greatest Generation. The demagogues in Germany were not a majority at first—not even close—but they “used prejudice as a tactical weapon to cripple the nation,” an émigré explains. “Remember when you hear this kind of talk, somebody’s going to get something out if it, and it’s not going to be you.”
Today, cable television, talk radio, and the Internet are full of “news” and “commentary” exploiting the dirty tricks of the propaganda trade. One story on the Christian Broadcasting Network that is making the rounds on Breitbart.tv and elsewhere would have us believe that Muslims are bent on conquering France. A man is interviewed who says he “secretly” filmed some of them praying in the streets of Paris and blocking the roads (even though the film shows the main street is open). The cameraman’s face is hidden because, the report says, he fears retribution.
As someone who lives in France, I can tell you this whole narrative is not only sinister fantasy—it’s a very cynical and ugly attempt to sow the idea of a vast conspiracy identified with the very word “Muslim.” In fact, the technique is much the same as the one used in the spurious "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," concocted more than 100 years ago to legitimize the European persecution of the Jews. “The great importance of the Protocols lies in its permitting anti-Semites to reach beyond their traditional circles and find a large international audience, a process that continues to this day,” Daniel Pipes wrote in his 1997 book, Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From. Pipes then goes on to quote Umberto Eco’s sage judgment that the phenomenon was “self-generating; a blueprint that migrated from one conspiracy to another.”
That many of the bigots in the world of Islam have adopted and still propagate these noxious stories of Jewish conspiracies is offensive and inexcusable. But that doesn’t give American demagogues the right to turn them around and use the same approach to Muslims. When someone like former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich starts to talk about a “stealth jihad,” he might as well say he’s discovered a copy of the "Protocols of the Elders of Islam." And that is not something Americans should accept from any of their politicians or, for that matter, their preachers.
Christopher Dickey is also the author most recently of Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—The NYPD, chosen by The New York Times as a notable book of 2009.