Burning the Koran (or any book) is a bad thing, and the Rev. Terry Jones of something called the Dove World Outreach Center will violate basic standards of decency when he sets fire to the Muslim holy book on Sept. 11. But it is Constitutionally-protected free speech. Last year a North Carolina church observed Halloween by burning Bible translations it considered heretical, to nary a peep from the national media. Blasphemous treatment of Christian religious symbols is commonplace, from Andre Serrano’s crucifix-in-urine construction to Chris Ofili’s elephant dung Madonna.
Where does Gen. David Petraeus get off telling American civilians how to express their opinions? Serving American military officers are not supposed to poke their noses into such matters. Petraeus well may be correct that “extremists” will use the burning of the Koran to stir up anti-American sentiments. If an American commander finds it inconvenient when Americans express antipathy towards Islam, where will it end?
If the obnoxious and misguided Rev. Jones can be bullied into silence, who else will be told to shut up? “Extremists” well may express outrage when an American writer cites the opinion of the great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig concerning Islam, namely that it is a “parody” of Judaism and Christianity, a “monistic paganism” in which Allah represents “the whole colorful panlopy of Olympus rolled up into one.”
Petraeus says that the planned Koran-burning “is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems — not just here, but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community.” What about Americans who don’t believe that the US should be “engaged with the Islamic community?” What about the Rev. Pat Robertson, who has said for years that Allah is a pagan moon-god? Will Petraeus demand that he shut up?
Petraeus this year addressed the annual dinners of the American Enterprise Institute, Commentary Magazine, and the Hudson Institute. Are these organizations planning to suppress negative comments about Islam?
Unlike some of my conservative colleagues, I take a skeptical view of Petraeus success in the 2008 “surge” in Iraq. As I wrote last April in the Tablet webzine, the Potemkin village of stability in Iraq required a hands-off policy towards Iran, which had the capability all along to make a dog’s breakfast of American efforts to stabilize the situation on the ground:
Iran has gained political ascendancy in Iraq through intensive subversion efforts. According to senior military sources cited by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on February 25, “The Iranians allegedly are pumping $9 million a month in covert aid to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite party that has the most seats in the Iraqi parliament, and $8 million a month to the militant Shiite movement headed by Moqtada al-Sadr.”
Petraeus’s opinions about the Middle East carry less weight than those of his boss, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, who has been warning against an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear capability for the past year. In a March 16, 2009, interview with Charlie Rose, Mullen said: “What I worry about in terms of an attack on Iran is, in addition to the immediate effect, the effect of the attack, it’s the unintended consequences. It’s the further destabilization in the region. It’s how they would respond. We have lots of Americans who live in that region who are under the threat envelope right now [because of the] capability that Iran has across the Gulf. So, I worry about their responses and I worry about it escalating in ways that we couldn’t predict.”
A rough translation of Mullen’s remarks into civilian political language is that the quixotic notion of building democracy in the Middle East led the United States into an Iranian trap.
Petraeus put about 100,000 Sunni fighters on the payroll of the American army, a good way to postpone sectarian conflict until American troops are gone. His supposed “success” sets up a prospective Thirty Years War in the region.
Whatever criticisms I might have of Petraeus’ actions as a serving officer are beside the point, though. His intervention into civilian issues of free speech is outrageous. Islam does not demand equal treatment with other religions, which had to take their share of lumps from a hostile secular environment. Muslims are demanding special treatment. They have no right to do so, and Petraeus has no business demanding that Americans give special treatment to Muslims.