Sacred Book, Sacred Space: My Attempt to Buy a Qur’an

Yesterday afternoon, I tried to buy a Qur’an. I used to own two copies of the Qur’an (or, to be precise, a translation of the meaning of the Qur’an). One I bought as a textbook, and read, and one was mailed to me by Muslims trying to proselytize, but a search of my bookcases and attic revealed that neither copy had survived recent relocations. And so, I walked to the center of town to buy another copy.

I’m not the only person in the market for a Qur’an this week. According to Amazon, the Oxford World’s Classics edition is currently at 72 and climbing in their bestsellers list, meaning that Amazon is selling a lot of Qur’ans. Demand is being spurred by two related events: plans to build an Islamic community center in New York City, and plans to burn Qur’ans in Gainesville, Florida.

The two controversies are mirror images of each other—not exactly so, but near enough. In the one, Muslims plan to build a community center that an overwhelming majority of evangelical Christians oppose. Many defend Muslims’ First Amendment right to the free exercise of their religion and fair use of their private property, while questioning the wisdom of trying to build near Ground Zero. In the other, evangelical Christians plan to burn the Qur’ans on September 11 (also the last day of Ramadan), an action opposed by all Muslims and, one hopes, a majority of Americans. It’s pretty clear that the Qur’an burning is protected speech under the First Amendment, and in any case it cannot be prevented in advance, but many have decried the insult to Muslims and the potential danger to U.S. troops overseas. Both cases are linked by the problem of the sacred and the problem of pluralism.

The sacred is enlisted in both controversies. The chief argument advanced against building the Islamic community center is that Ground Zero is a sacred, a claim some 56% of Americans believe. Ground Zero’s alleged sacredness is not the sacredness of a church, but something between the sacredness of a roadside shrine for a car accident and that of a battlefield. Like the shrine, Ground Zero is sacred to the cult of the victims, and it has an out-and-about, everyday kind of sacredness. But the more apt comparison is to a battlefield. Officially, according to Presidents Bush and Obama, the war is the American people against terrorism. It would be naive, though, to miss that many Americans are fighting or wish to fight a different war: one that pits a bastard mix of Christianity and American civil religion against global Islam.

Terry Jones, pastor of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, is just one of those Americans. Had he not been the one to receive the media’s attention, doubtless someone else would have gotten it. Calling his threat to burn the Qur’an on September 11 a publicity stunt misses the point, though. Jones is doubtless after publicity, but his beliefs and his hate are sincere; the media amplifies them, but it did not create them. Jones’s plan is to desecrate the Qur’an by burning it, a double insult to Islam, on the one hand, and to rational secularists who regard books as sacred. (Librarians and intellectuals regularly protest book burning.) Yet the act of burning a Qur’an is, in a way, an inadvertent acknowledgment that it is sacred. Before an object can be desecrated, it must first be sacred. It is the boundary that gives meaning to the transgression, and the transgression is the most visible acknowledgement that a boundary exists.

These controversies over a sacred space and a sacred book raise the question: How does an open society like the United States deal with the problem of multiple religions?

The answer, in a word, is pluralism. Pluralism is not the vague notion that all religions are the same. That idea, propounded by both the religious and the irreligious, is an insult to all religions, for it ignores the actual meaning of their beliefs and practices and reduces them to a set of platitudes. Pluralism, rather, acknowledges that religions are different and irreconciliable, that their practitioners will frequently be at odds, and that they have every right to attempt to proselytize the other. Yet pluralism makes room within society for multiple religions. Making room is, in one sense, dependent on law. The state provides ordered liberty–the protection of rights and the maintenance of order. It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul wrote that rulers are “the ministers of God” who are “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” and commanded Christians to pray for rulers “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” But making room is, in another sense, dependent not on legal restrictions but on voluntarily restrictions. It may be legal to burn a Qur’an, but it is wrong by the code of an open society and by the imperatives of the gospel. There’s a saying that your right to swing your arms ends where my nose begins. If that’s the case, then it’s also true that my right to profane ends where your sense of the sacred begins.

Pluralism of this type works when allegiance to the state does not conflict with allegiance to religion. In other words, it works when I can be both Christian and American, and you can be a Muslim and an American, without violating our religious conscience to maintain our political loyalty. The problem in both cases is that religious loyalties and political loyalty are confused because of American civil religion, a syncretistic, quasi-Judeo-Christian political religion intended to promote loyalty to the state. Protestant-Catholic-Jew, to borrow Will Herberg’s phrase, may have equal right to claim Americanness, but Muslims have not yet been welcomed into the cult of civil religion . In both the case of the community center and the Qur’an-burning, the conflict is not primarily between Islam and Christianity, but between Islam and American civil religion. This is apparent from the choice of Ground Zero and September 11 as holy space and holy day, respectively, and in the patterns of opposition to the community center as desecration, strongest among Christians but claiming a broader following. A genuine pluralism cannot exist where a civil religion superimposes itself on religious and political loyalty.

That is why I tried to buy a Qur’an yesterday. Reading about other religions is hardly a panacea, but it’s a better step than burning them. I had to resort to Amazon, though, because my attempt to buy a Qur’an at a bookstore failed. The religion section of one used bookstore held a dozen Bibles and even a Tanakh, but no Qur’an. The other bookstore was closed, ironically enough, for Rosh Hashanah.