9/11, Nine Years Later: The Internet, the Koran, and the Need for Vocal Moderates

By / 9.10.2010

On September 11, 2001, I had just arrived in Bucharest for dissertation research. I was conducting an interview when the planes hit. As I ran around the city, trying to find a television with news in English to learn what was happening, a Turkish worker noticed my Jewish visage, stopped me in the street, and told me that the Jews had done it. The conspiracy theory only gained ground. A week later, as I walked to Bucharest’s old synagogue for Rosh Hashana services, I was harassed for the terrorist attack multiple times by passers-by.

Again it is Rosh Hashana, and again, September 11 looms – this time, with the backdrop of Koran-burning and anger at plans for a mosque.  As we step into a new year, I wonder what, if anything, has been learned. Prejudice against Muslims has grown in America.  We even have our own bin Laden – a Florida pastor who has decided that God wants him to burn the holy book of the Islamic “infidels.”

Did I just say that – comparing a pastor ekeing out a living selling furniture on e-bay, to the mastermind terrorist?  Yes. The pastor knows that his act will bring about the deaths of scores, if not hundreds or thousands, in sectarian violence from Afghanistan to Africa. The ripple effects will be felt in violence against Christian missionaries who have lived among the Afghan people for decades. It will be seen in violence against Christian communities living along the violent belt that marks the split between Christian and Muslim Africa. And it will be felt by the innocent Muslims who are caught in the inevitable backlash.

Twenty years ago, this would not have happened. A pastor leading a flock of fifty could indeed have decided to burn Korans – but no one would have known, outside, perhaps, of his townspeople. The internet’s ability to super-empower individuals, to spread YouTube videos to millions instantaneously, to fan the flames of a 24 hour news cycle hungry for controversy, has allowed a single man with the tiniest of pulpits to receive direct messages from the President of the United States and the General in charge of a distant theater of war. It is the same phenomenon that allowed Osama bin Laden to gain an international following while camped in Sudan, Afghanistan, and the borderlands of Pakistan.

The new media reality is not something we yet know how to handle. How can a country be responsible for every action of every person within its borders – when a single ideologue can catch fire and affect the deepest fibers of our foreign policy?  How can our leaders communicate when the same words are heard in radically different ways by voters at home and listeners abroad – and yet both listen to the same speeches?

But at least we, as a foreign policy community, are talking about what to do in this new media reality. There are other cultural shifts we are not acknowledging. One of the most significant is that we are living through another period of worldwide religious revival. Across all major religions, numbers are growing, and intensity of belief is deepening. The anomie and confusion of modern life pushes some to slow food and organic gardening, others to deepen their faith and intensify their search for a higher order. The effects of this spiritual revival are being felt in country after country, from America to Turkey. This deepening of faith causes fights within religions as much as between them. Ironically, if there is a clash of civilizations, Jones, the Florida pastor, and bin Laden would actually have more in common than the moderates within both Islam and Christianity.

But there is a crucial difference. Christian pastors from around the world have denounced Jones, loudly. He has received personal calls from the heads of other Christian groups—as well as the head of the former church he founded in Germany —  asking him not to desecrate the Koran. Our countries’ political leaders have spoken against his actions in the most public of fora – and so have those within his faith. There are terrific Muslim organizations that also condemn violence within their religion. They need to be helped by those within their faith. They need to be joined by politicians and others within Islam, who are the only ones with standing to effectively speak against the violence in their own ranks. The difference in tone and denunciation between Jones and bin Laden is striking – and disturbing, nine years after 9/11.

As a Jew, I have my own tribe, my own faith and beliefs. But as a Jew with a particularly Jewish-looking mug, I know enough to be worried by increasing religiosity that is married to increasing intolerance. The internet is super-empowering the world’s most intolerant leaders, and as the current religious revival continues, this trend is only going to get worse. It is going to continue to be a particular problem in Islam, until moderates feel strongly enough to speak out just as unequivocally and publicly as Christians are condemning Jones. It’s time we, as a foreign policy community, look this reality in the eye, and address it directly.

Photo credit: rutty’s photostream