Imperium – Qur’an Desecration, part 1 [updated]

[update]: I didn’t realize the stories of the Qur’an being flushed are at least a year old. It strikes me that this lends much more credence to the claim, considering within 48 hours government concluded its initial investigation and began to blame Newsweek for poor reporting. Transferance.

The recent report that the Qur’an may have been flushed down a toilet in Guantanamo Bay has created two trains of thought in my mind. One external, and the purpose of this post, and one internal, the subject of a second post, hence the title. Although it is looking like the original report may have been in error, the perception is what is important at this point. I find it amusing, in a darkly comic sort of way, that the only “unconfirmed” report of such an event occurring is when an inmate [Muslim?] attempted to do it. I leave it to you, dear reader, based on the response that this is getting, do you think that a Muslim could have done it? (I know the mullahs are often a bunch of hypocrites, but you are talking about a holy book here).

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Perception is incredibly important here. William Safire has a piece on the rise of the words Christianist and Christaphobe, that, since I can’t deep link to it, I would like excerpt below.

Two weeks after writing about the fervor of the late Terri Schiavo’s ”Christianist ‘supporters,”’ Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker last month described Representative Tom Delay as a ”hard-right Christianist crusader.” A few months before, soon after President Bush was re-elected, the conservative Weekly Standard reported that an Ohio cartoonist had sent out a communication deploring ”militant Christianist Republicans.”

Obviously there is a difference in meaning between the adjectives Christian and Christianist. Thanks to Jon Goldman, an editor at Webster’s New World Dictionaries, I have the modern coinage of the latter with its pejorative connotation. ”I have a new term for those on the fringes of the religious right,” wrote the blogging Andrew Sullivan on June 1, 2003, ”who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression: Christianists. They are as anathema to true Christians as the Islamists are to true Islam.”

Not such a new term. You have to be careful about claiming coinage, as I learned to my rue (my 1970’s baby, workfare, turned out to have been coined earlier; same with neuroethics). In 1883, W.H. Wynn wrote a homily that said ”Christianism — if I may invent that term — is but making a sun-picture of the love of God.” He didn’t invent the term, either. In the early 1800’s, the painter Henry Fuseli wrote scornfully that ”Christianism was inimical to the progress of arts.” And John Milton used it in 1649.

Adding ist or ism to a word usually colors it negatively, as can be seen in secularist. In ”One Nation Under Therapy,” Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel coined therapism to mean ”the revolutionary idea that psychology can take the place of ethics and religion,” which they believe undermines the American creed of ”self-reliance, stoicism, courage in the face of adversity and the valorization of excellence.” Therapists (a neutral term — indeed, masseurs like to upgrade their job description to massage therapist) won’t like therapism, which is intended to be disparaging.

As Christianist, with its evocation of Islamist, gains wider usage as an attack word on what used to be called the religious right, another suffix is being used in counterattack to derogate those who denounce church influence in politics. ”The Catholic scholar George Weigel calls this phenomenon ‘Christophobia,”’ the columnist Anne Applebaum wrote in The Washington Post. She noted that he borrowed the word from the American legal scholar, J.H.H. Weiler. The word was used by Weigel ”after being struck by the European Union’s fierce resistance to any mention of the continent’s Christian origins in the draft versions of the new, and still unratified, European constitution.”

Phobia, which means ”fear of,” was doing fine as a medical term until recently. ”Phobias are irrational fears,” says Elaine Rodino, a psychologist in Santa Monica, Calif. ”They are not just ‘sort of fears’; they are full and intense and uncontrollable.” An anxiety psychologist in Chicago, David Carbonell, says that ”the clinical term phobia is not doing well. Often it’s appended to another word to indicate a wide range of dislikes that may have nothing to do with the core meaning of avoidance as a response to powerful fear. I just fielded a request for an interview on ‘nudophobia.”’

These range from Islamophobe to Christophobe, both of which were used in the Oct. 23, 1997, edition of The Independent in London. They include Dean-o-phobe in a 2003 New Republic article, when Jonathan Chait confessed, ”It’s not entirely clear to me why I’ve taken such an intense dislike to Howard Dean.”

Today’s negative connotation of the suffix -phobia (the ailment) or -phobe (the person) comes from the political-social accusation of homophobia. The original meaning, according to the O.E.D., is ”fear of men, or aversion towards the male sex.” Chambers’s Journal in 1920 wrote of a woman whose ”salient characteristic was a contempt for the male sex represented in the human biped. . . . The seeds of homophobia had been sown early.”

Many doctors take umbrage at the general use of their suffix in words like Francophobe for ”one who calls French fries ‘freedom fries”’; they don’t like the way it dilutes the scientific seriousness of the term about an irrational fear. But professions don’t own their words. Mathematicians also gripe about the theft of their beloved parameters, to no avail; common usage has a way of snatching a specific word or suffix to do more general semantic work.

Let the listener or reader beware: -ist and -phobe, more often than not these days, are suffixes tacked on to words to turn them into fierce derogations. If this is alarmist, then I’m a lexiphobe.

I have suggested that Islamophobia and Judeophobia, and I mean in the sense of an irrational fear that no amount of logic will overcome, come from the same source. This holds true in a predominately Christian environment. so two immediate questions come to mind: can you be Christophobic in a Christian environment? how is Christophobia exhibited in non-Christian environments? I believe these two questions are actually related because they speak to a perception of what Christianity is. With respect to the first question, I would argue yes, when there is an attempt to create a single definition of being Christ-like, then it becomes easy to fear that vision of Christ if it is not your vision of Christ. Essentially, by attempting to create a monolithic Christianity, Christianists are creating a class of Christophobes, even amongst those who wish to be Christ-like.

Much like in this country, where Islamists have have helped to perpetuate Islamophobia, imagine a Muslim majority country where the rhetoric coming out of the US, its major point of international interaction, is Christianist. is not Christophobia the necessary result? (See this post on Crooked Timber for a suggested chain of causality between Christianist movements at the Airforce Academy and the desecration of the Qur’an).

What is the impact on Muslims in the US of this Christianist attitude? While Israel and Iraq are useful rhetorical foils as reasons for Muslim discontent, I would argue that most Muslim Americans see those issues as foreign policy issues, not religious issues, and can be settled in the political arena. However, look at the way Muslims are publicly pilloried (Brandon Mayfield, James Yee, Muslim teenage girls), mosque desecration in Iraq, the abuses at Abu Ghuraib and Gitmo, profiling by law-enforcement agencies (see this blog for a long record), insults by high-ranking public officials (Ashcroft, Boykin), demonization in popular media (24), and a report that the Qur’an is put in the toilet (true or not, it’s come to the point where it’s believable and believed; more on that topic later), and you can understand how Muslim Americans can feel alienated. Let us suppose that I read Arabic and spoke both Persian and Urdu, as an American born citizen I should be an resource for our government. However, as much as I love the country, can I work for a government that views me as the enemy? That “can” is in both senses: will this government let me? should I? Is it collaboration? By letting the Christianists define Christianity, this administration is allowing them to define this country.

The Crooked Timber post above also mentions the War of 1857. In this war, the Indians rose up against the British because of the (untrue) rumor that the shell casings that Indian soldiers had to bite into were coated with pig and cow fats, anathema to both Hindu and Muslims. The revolution was crushed and the Mughal Empire, the figure head for British indirect rule came to an end. The British then took direct control India, and so began the British Raj. The question now is what will happen to the American sultanate? Will Karzai be brushed aside for direct rule? What of the newly democratic Iraq and their freely elected rulers? I don’t think it will come to direct rule yet, but our indirect empire has been creeping towards more and more visibility. The apocryphal story of Nero fiddling while Rome is burning is a warning of being so secure in your superiority that nothing else matters. Whether the the flushing of the Qur’an proves true or not, the fact that it is now believable as policy says to me Rome is burning. Are people fiddling?