Clash of Civilizations

By Alex Joffe
Friday, April 8, 2011

The death toll in Afghanistan has passed the two-dozen mark in the riots "inspired" by Pastor Terry Jones's burning of a Quran in Florida. The grisly political theater has served its purpose.

Setting a trap, Jones had his prejudices regarding a Muslim predilection for violence amply confirmed. The Organization of the Islamic Conferences has renewed its calls for global laws to insulate Islam, its prophet, and its holy text from criticism and desecration. Senator Lindsay Graham has suggested that the U.S. Senate may hold hearings on the matter—though it is clear that burning a Quran, like burning a Bible or any other sacred text, is a protected expression of free speech.  

For Jews, the whole affair may stir memories of the past—and, in particular, outbursts of rage over, in their case, alleged desecrations of bread and wine.

The ritual of the Eucharist or Sacrament of the Altar invokes the words of Jesus in offering his disciples bread and wine at the Last Supper: "This is my body" and "This is my blood." In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council spoke of the host bread and sacramental wine of the mass as "transubstantiated": i.e., in fact the body and blood of Jesus. Jews were first accused of desecrating the host in 1243, and for centuries, thousands would be murdered for having allegedly stolen, hidden, or defiled sacred bread or wafers in a ritual re-enactment of the crucifixion.

The plausibility of these accusations was, to say the least, questionable. Rather, the outbursts seem to have been sparked by the conjunction among Christians of a sincere belief in religious doctrine with an equally sincere hatred of Jews—and with an opportune moment (like Easter). The same hair-trigger conjunction no doubt lay behind other such libels, most notoriously that Jews engaged in ritual murder to acquire the blood of Christian children for matzot—a charge that led to similar numbers being robbed, killed, converted, or expelled.

And today? Analogies between religions are always imprecise, but Muslims believe that the Quran in Arabic is not just the record of the divinely revealed word of Allah but the divinely revealed word itself. (This, despite agreement that the text as received was not written down until several decades after the death of Muhammad.) Since the Pact of Umar around the year 717 C.E., non-Muslims have been forbidden from even studying the Quran. Burning it, an attack on or diminution of God's presence on earth, is the very definition of blasphemy, and is punishable by death.

As it happens, scores of Qurans are burned in attacks by Muslims upon other Muslims, as in the routine bombings of mosques by Sunnis and Shiites in Pakistan. But, as with Christians toward Jews, condemnations are reserved for the rare attacks by non-believers.

Can the matter be resolved? The Christian-Jewish experience offers only partial hope. According to some sources, the last murder of a Jew on the charge of host desecration was in 1631; according to others, 1761. The 1840 Damascus Affair, in which a blood-libel accusation leveled by Christians led to anti-Jewish rioting and pillage by Muslims, was a modern trifecta.

Protestantism, starting with Luther himself, rejected transubstantiation. In the Catholic Church, the main doctrinal turning point occurred in 1965 with Nostra Aetate, in which the Vatican repudiated the ancient charge against the Jews of deicide. This was recently amplified by Pope Benedict XVI in the second volume of his book, Jesus of Nazareth. There he asks, rhetorically: "How could the whole [Jewish] people have been present at this moment to clamor for Jesus' death?" The answer being that they could not have been, Benedict concludes by stipulating that the responsible party was not the Jewish people as a whole—then or later—but rather the "Temple aristocracy." 

Benedict XVI is the 265th pope, the successor of Saints Peter and Paul. He stands atop a global hierarchy of almost 3,000 dioceses, some 400,000 priests, and a billion faithful. His statements can fundamentally alter a tradition that effectively reaches back to 313 C.E., helping to dissipate visceral hatreds that have themselves faded with modernity.

Nothing like this exists in the radically diffused traditions of Islam. There are no churches as such, integrated into hierarchies that transmit tradition and interpret and modify doctrine. Instead, there are competing schools of jurisprudence devoted to interpreting the theory and philosophy of law rather than the law itself. Nor are there priests in Islam, but rather individuals of varying degrees of learning who act as prayer leaders and judges. History does sometimes throw up leading public figures, like the Ayatollah Khomeini or the radical televangelist Sheikh Qaradawi or, among anti-radical Shiites, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, but there are no popes with ultimate responsibility for policy and doctrine.

Thus, no Muslim, however well intentioned or well regarded, can make a forward-looking statement about the Jews, much less about the encounter between the Quran and modern notions of free speech, with anything like the authority of Benedict. Islamic tradition being, moreover, not a fixed essence but a vast swirl of movements and beliefs, calls for fundamental change can always be short-circuited by calls to the plain texts of the tradition itself.

As for America, longstanding custom suggests but does not demand respect for religion; nor, in a free society, can any law forbid blasphemy or require indulgence of specific religious beliefs. To suggest otherwise in the case of 21st-century Muslims is tantamount to conceding that they are incapable of containing their anger. It is also explicitly to yield to threats or fear of violence.  For now, free speech and Quran-burning collide like two plates of the earth's crust, creating earthquakes that affect us all.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.  He last wrote for Jewish Ideas Daily on Israel's archeological battles.  

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