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Signs, Symbols, and Their Effect on the Muslim World

Don Rose 13 September 2010 One Comment

I’ve had it up to here with over-coverage and over-reaction to all the doings around the 9th anniversary of 9/11, notably the lunatic, publicity-seeking “preacher” who wants to burn Qurans and the politicians exploiting irrational fear and anger at the building of an Islamic center amid the saloons and porn shops a few blocks from “ground zero,” and especially those who want to link the two together.

The real desecration of the World Trade Center site was perpetrated by the political and financial interests who wrangled for years over what was to be rebuilt there with what money and who would control the design and make the profit. World-class architects were auditioned and the impressive Daniel Liebeskind won the contract. His design was followed by protests and posturing by the commercial developer who owns part of the site, igniting a horrendous cat-fight with the city and the NY Port Authority, all of which was a total disgrace to any who view the site as hallowed.

Fortunately the fight ended and construction of a memorial and high-rises is under way, some possibly to be completed in time for the 10th anniversary. But the events of the past couple of weeks illustrate the often-irrational power of symbology over reality, here and elsewhere.

The scrabbling over the Islamic center, which, indeed, will incorporate a prayer room or “mosque,” will continue. Who knows what the Florida preacher or copycats might yet do with Qurans. They’ve latched on to a worldwide attention-getter that reaches the White House and the military—with the likes of Sarah Palin entering the fray to help keep it all going.

We all react strongly to symbols—flags, crosses, stars, crescents, swastikas, hammers with sickles, raised fists, whatever. The response is deeply imbedded, either from early childhood and religious training or the remembrance of recent history. One or another symbol can speak to our deepest values or our worst fears and enmities. Apparently we’re all hard-wired to exhibit these emotional responses.

What I don’t understand is how the force of some of these responses can become as intense as they are in some quarters, inciting violence and killings as did the Muslim response to a set of wacky Danish cartoons purportedly depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. If the poorly drawn faces had not been captioned with the prophet’s name they simply would look like stock, bad-taste caricatures of Arabs—including one with a bomb in his turban.

But they set off weeks of rioting, with Muslims bizarrely killing Muslims. Now much of the world fears similar or worse reactions—including attacks on American troops or even the nation itself—if and when a Quran is burned before battery of all-too-willing TV cameras that will replay the event into eternity. The concern over such military or terrorist reaction is unfortunately real.

What I further fail understand is why only certain members of a certain religion in a certain part of the world over-react to this extreme. I suspect political agitation rather than some inherent Islamic emotional instability, though there is a closer relationship between the religious and the political in that world.

How often have we seen Middle East demonstrations where American flags and Israeli flags are burned? We Americans are angered and certainly the sight emotionally wounds Israelis. I do not, however, recall any episodes of violent retaliatory reaction, though those images obviously contribute to the generalized anti-Islam sentiments pervading America today.

For years some politicians tried to amend the US Constitution to outlaw flag burning—which hasn’t been perpetrated here for decades. A few years ago there were picket lines outside the Art Institute of Chicago when a student exhibit featured a flag that people walked on. The demonstrations were nonviolent, fortunately, but the demonstrators showed how deeply the essentially harmless symbology distressed them.

How might the Judeo-Christian world respond to Islamists burning a bible or a torah? More pain and anger, for sure, and more hatred, but I would not foresee bombings—though it would likely provoke more individual attacks, the way that deranged New Yorker slashed a Muslim cab driver.

I clearly understand the fear of potential harm if a cross were burned on the lawn of a black family. That symbol historically suggests physical violence to follow. But I should hope that somehow we—and especially the Muslim world—learn to better control our reactions to symbols that are essentially harmless, even though they might tend to elevate the blood pressure.

Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

image Zildjian cymbals

The first Zildjian (pronounced /ˈzɪldʒ(ɪ)ən/)cymbals were created in 1623 by Avedis Zildjian, an alchemist who was looking for a way to turn base metal into gold; he created an alloy combining tin, copper, and silver into a sheet of metal that could make musical sounds without shattering. Avedis was given the name of Zildjian (Zilciyân) by the Sultan Osman II (from the Turkish word zil – cymbal, dji – maker-seller, ian – a common suffix used in Armenian last names) and began an industry in 1623, the details of whose main product remained secret for generations. It became family tradition that only the company’s heirs would know the manufacturing process.

The Zildjian Company moved from manufacturing noisemakers to frighten the enemies of the Ottoman Empire to manufacturing its cymbals as musical instruments in the 19th century.

One Comment »

  • Bill Baar said:

    Re: How might the Judeo-Christian world respond to Islamists burning a bible or a torah?

    With relief. It’s the videoed beheadings that get to me.

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