Anti-mosque protesters

Protesters demonstrate against proposed Islamic centre, New York, 22 Aug. 2010

Nine years ago today, the world was reeling from the news of the September 11 attacks in America. Every year since, the anniversary of the attacks has been marked by poignant ceremonies. But the commemorations 11 this year were distracted by two peripheral controversies.

The first was a proposal to build an Islamic cultural centre several blocks away from Ground Zero in New York. Critics, of whom there are many, said that the centre would offend many people, as the terrorists who committed the atrocities were Muslim. The counter-claim is that associating the cultural centre with the attacks implies that Islam itself is linked to terrorism, and is therefore wrong.

The plans for the cultural centre sparked even greater controversy when an obscure American pastor, Terry Jones, threatened to burn the Koran on the anniversary in protest. Although he cancelled the burning in the end, his threats sparked widespread national and international condemnation, and anti-American and anti-Christian protests erupted across the Muslim world.

It is unfortunate that the commemoration of the attacks was distracted by the controversies, but it is obvious that they are more than just about the direct legacy of the attacks—they point to some unsolved questions about the relationship between America and the Islamic world, and the deep-seated mistrust of each other by citizens on both sides.

Disregarding the large number of complex political and historical factors for this distrust, one of the most basic reasons is the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Americans fume that Osama bin-Laden, the mastermind of the attacks, has not been caught and brought to justice. Meanwhile Muslims are infuriated that Americans have in effect occupied Afghanistan. The current counter-insurgency operations there do not bring capturing bin-Laden any closer, and neither does it assuage Muslims who are angry that the war is causing so much destruction in Afghanistan. Add to the mix the disastrous failure of western intervention in Iraq, and one is left with little wonder why the wounds of September 11 have festered, feeding on and breeding mutual mistrust that bubbled over this weekend with the question of the location of the centre and the threats to burn the Koran.

The fact that the controversies are symptoms of wider problems are made clearer by comparing them with another that should have caused similar outrage, but did not. Some who protest the location of the Islamic centre may, to prove their point, ask: “what would national feeling be if a Japanese Shinto shrine was built near Pearl Harbor?” In fact, there is a *Shinto shrine in Honolulu a few kilometres southwest of Pearl Harbor, which was first established in 1920, shut down in 1941, and reopened in 1948. But there are no protests there. It is not that the memories of the 3,000 or so American servicemen killed at Pearl Harbor are less important than those of the people killed on September 11; it is simply because Japan and America no longer view each other as enemies. Even though the beliefs of Christianity and Shintoism differ fundamentally, no Christian minister has ever tried to protest against the Japanese attack by threatening to burn the holy books of Shintoism.

The current controversies regarding the cultural centre and the pastor’s threat therefore point to a deep undercurrent in American society—it is still in the mood of setting heads rolling for the attacks. The failure of the American government to capture bin-Laden has made it easier for the vindictive mood to be shifted towards Islam in general. That in turn continues to drive a wedge in relations between the west and the Islamic world, ensuring that peace lies further beyond reach.
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