Thursday, September 09, 2010

The debate in the US over the burning of the Quran and the Cordoba centre in Lower Manhattan

The Americans are in many ways a naive folk. They wear their hearts on the sleeve and they agonise over things quite openly. They send out a strong image of transparency. But what is surprising is that they are not fully aware of their deep-rooted assumptions which are in turn based on certain prejudices. It is true that compared to the Europeans they are more open and they are also less racist. But this is so relatively speaking. Traditional American values favour religious freedom, and it extends to those who are not Christians, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. There is a certain curiosity in the American mind for other religions. Call it the exotic factor. But it is so only with the minority of liberals, who are both vocal and visible. It gives the wrong impression that most Americans are liberal and that they are willing to experiment with religion. Most Americans of the counter-culture generation of the 1960s were willing to convert to other religions to find out what that religion has to offer. But the truth is many of them experimented with some forms of Buddhism, especially the Zen variety, and to a lesser degree with a kind of Hinduism -- the Krishna Consciousness variety -- which was not really Hinduism. Some of the African-Americans, it is true, went over to Islam, but this phenomenon has not been fully examined.
So, it should not come as a surprise that a greater number of ordinary Americans think that Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims. To be fair, it is not so much the fault of the ordinary Americans to entertain such a view because vocal Islamic evangelists take on aggressive, exclusivist stance which verges on belligerence. It is true that for every fanatical-sounding Muslim preacher there are millions who practice their faith quietly and who present a gentle face of Islam. But they are not seen. It is this gentle, silent majority of Muslims who convince many Americans that Muslims are decent and peace-loving. But never the preachers, however well-meaning they may be.
It is in this context that the proposal for the Islamic cultural centre two blocks aways from the destroyed World Trade Centre in Lower Manhattan. The proposed structure, to be called Cordoba Centre, is to be a cultural centre with prayer halls for different faiths. Now many of the Americans are not too convinced that the centre is a good idea at that spot. There are quite a large number who think it should be there. Obviously, there is a bit of confusion.
The interesting thing is this: An overwhelming majority of Americans, including Rpublicans are opposing the Florida pastor who wants to burn the Quran. And a large number of the same crowd are not too sure about the Cordoba centre.
It can be safely inferred that an ordinary American's intellectual horizon generally stops at Christianity, and they cannot help it if they cannot grasp what lies beyond.

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