As the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote almost two centuries ago,"Those who begin by burning books will end by burning people."
The theater piece for which he wrote those words, called "Almansor," was addressing the Inquisition's burning of the Quran. In 1933, university students in Heine's own beloved homeland burned his books, along with many others. They burned people soon after.
Many American religious communities and organizations, as well as secular groups like Common Cause, have condemned this call for burning. The road to burning people is by no means so open here, now, as it was in Germany in 1933.
But still, we need to face the question: How did we get to the point where some Americans would burn a sacred book, and many more oppose the building of a sacred mosque in their own townnot only in Lower Manhattan, but in many other neighborhoods?
It would be easy to start with the aftermath of the terror attacks against the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. But the spiritual chasm between Christianity and Islam goes back centuries. The hostility of Jews toward Islam, on top of the ignorance of almost all European and American Jews about Islam, goes back at least to 1948. And the economic dislocations and unwinnable wars of recent years also have their place in pouring out the fear and anger that provides the fuel for the spark of bigotry.
Step 1: The Old Hostilities
There are perverse and paradoxical spiritual roots to the hostility between Islam and Christianity.
All the great religious traditionsnot only those we call monotheist, but Hinduism and Buddhism and Shinto and Wicca and for that matter what we call "secular" traditions like socialism and liberalism are rooted in the profound effort to make loving contact with the ONE. One God, one historical dialectic, one Web of life in soul and body on our planetONE.
Once a community has begun to reach out toward the ONE, it begins to create the metaphors, the rituals, the languages, the practices in daily life, the festivals to embody this searching toward the ONE. And then the community bumps into another community that also claims it is in contact with the ONE, and has its own quite different set of metaphors, rituals, languages, and daily practices, with which to make this contact real.
There are often two responses to this discovery:
One is to say with surprise and delight, "You have shaped a different path from ours! Of course there must be many ways of lighting up the Infinite, unfolding truth. How could the great Infinity reveal itself except through sacred diversity? Let us learn from each other!"
The other response is to say: "We have unearthed the one way to the ONE, and any other path must be a false one. And worse than falsesince you claim falsely to have made contact with the ONE, you must be lying. Corrupt. Deceitful. Worth killing."
In the various British colonies that became the United States, this bitterly hostile response was embodied in the persecution of one or another faith community (e.g. Quakers, Jews, Roman Catholics), by one or another of the original colonial governments. The uncertainty of who might get persecuted in the nation as a whole was one of the factors leading to adoption of the First Amendment, and much of the hostile reaction was then muted by the existence of the First Amendment. If no religion could wield state power and violence against another, this reaction was less likely.
Native American religions and Mormonism did not "count" in this context; state power or pressure was used against these religious communities. And there was public pressure in the 19th century against Roman Catholicism, and in the 20th century against the "Nation of Islam" (a racially focused variant not accepted by any other Muslims as truly Islamic).
Step 2: The 9/11 Attack
Until 2001 in America, both hostility and interfaith exploration were quiescent, in regard to classical Islam. Then a tiny proportion of the more than one billion Muslims of the world, claiming they were acting on behalf of Islam and God, murdered about 3000 people.