Who benefits when a pastor in a small town in Florida threatens to burn the Quran? Or when a proposal to build a Muslim cultural center in Manhattan erupts into a national controversy?
And what can those of us who believe extremism is harmful do to stop it?
Terry Jones, the Gainsville pastor who was catapulted onto the global stage by his plan to burn the Quran, said his action was about standing up to Islamic extremists. But Gen. David Petraeus and others tell us that this action would play into the hands of extremists. Extremists need anger and hate to recruit and motivate followers; without images of outrage like this, people might revert to peace, respect, and tolerance, which, after all, come pretty naturally to a social species like ours.
There’s another group of extremists who likewise rely on hatemongering. The extreme right wing in this country needs fear and anger to keep people distracted from the real sources of insecurity — a stalled economy that has been managed for the benefit of Wall Street and big corporations, two protracted and disastrous wars, and a system increasingly unable to support a middle-class way of life.
The extremists on both sides have an oddly symbiotic relationship — each thrives on the anger and vitriol of the other.
But Rev. Jones and others of his ilk can succeed only when moderate voices are silent. Quiet disapproval isn’t enough. We must take a stand often, courageously, and respectfully for tolerance and peace. Here are a few ways we can do this during an especially fraught anniversary of the 9/11 attacks:
- Speak out in support of religious freedom, as the 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrow did recently in support of the proposed New York City Muslim cultural center.
- Speak up when you hear Muslims or other groups disparaged, whether in public or private, as ColorLines publisher Rinku Sen suggests in her recent column.
- Read out loud from the Quran or other Muslim texts on September 11, as the Network of Spiritual Progressives is doing (Brother Jamal Rahman, the Muslim Sufi member of our Interfaith Amigos, offers some verses from the Quran and from Rumi here). Or hold an interfaith candlelight vigil for peace, like the one planned by the Gainesville Muslim Initiative.
- Offer generous humanitarian aid to Pakistani flood victims because they need help and because it’s important for humanitarian aid to flow across religious divides.
- Examine your own prejudices—most of us have them. And consider what you have to gain and lose when others are treated as equals.
- Familiarize yourself both with the violent interpretations of the religions you encounter and with the interpretations of the same religious texts that emphasize love, compassion, and tolerance for all.
- Speak out for tolerance on blogs, Facebook pages, in public forums, in your faith group, and in letters to the editor. Call out candidates for public office of any political party who use intolerance or people's race, religion, or immigration status to whip up electoral passions. Just a few voices for tolerance in any community can change the tone of a dialogue.
- Monitor news and public-affairs media, and insist that they include voices for peace and tolerance in their programming, and not give undue importance to advocates of exclusion and intolerance. (A starting place is to sign Color of Change’s petition calling on businesses to "Turn Off Fox."
In coming months and years, we can expect even greater social stresses from a flagging economy, the continuing wars, and the "natural" disasters that will occur with increasing frequency on an overheated planet. Those stresses will be multiplied if we allow demagogues to transform them into hate and anger. Silence won't be enough — we'll have to speak out if we are to stop the madness.