Terry Jones, from Florida, is the pastor of Dove World Outreach Center last week burned the Koran, leading to riots and the deaths of 20 UN workers in Mazar-i-Sharif and several civilians in other Afghan cities. The connection between burning the Koran in Florida by the pastor of a church with about ten members and the killing of UN workers and others half the world away is hard to make. If there is any thought at all on the part of the rioters in Afghanistan, it must be that they believe that Jones represents western Christian imperialism and the UN is their military arm.
Terry Jones says that the Koran promotes violence (and the bible doesn’t?) and burned it to make his point (exactly, how, I’m not sure). He had been told that his actions might well lead to violence. He has taken no responsibility for the outcome and, in a sense, he is right. Jones is narrow-minded, probably a bigot and certainly a zealot. But exactly the same could be said of those in Afghanistan. Jones’ is stupid but not a murderer.
Jones and the Afghan riots got me to think about an incident in California the same week. In Santa Clara, California, the Foundation for Excellence, which provides scholarships for students in India, canceled an event that was the mark the publication of Joseph Lelyveld’s new book, The Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India.
“We didn’t want to be involved with any controversy because that is not the purpose of our organization—we are not a literary society that encourages debate and discussion on different authors and their books,” said Abhu Shukla, the foundation’s spokesperson. “So it is correct that we canceled because of the controversy.”
And what, exactly, is the nature of that controversy? The Indian state of Gujarat banned The Great Soul because, said Nerendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister because “the writing is perverse in nature. It has hurt the sentiments of those with capacity for sane and logical thinking.” The Indian government is considering a nation-wide ban. The book, according to M. Veerappa Moily, “denigrates the national pride and leadership.” Behind the Indian protest is the notion that Gandhi was bisexual and racist, at least during his early career in South Africa.
Lelyvld strongly disagrees with this characterization. “It does not say Gandhi was bisexual. It does not say that he was homosexual. It does not say that he was a racist. The word bisexual never appears in the book and the word racist only appears once in a very limited context; relating to a single phrase and not to Gandhi’s whole set attitudes or history in South Africa. I didn’t say these things. So I can hardly defend them.”
What Lelyveld did write: “It was no secret then, or later, that Gandhi leaving his wife behind, had gone to live with a man.”
In an interview about the book, Lelyveld adds, “It is a responsible book, it is a sensitive book, it is a book that is admiring of Gandhi and his struggle for social justice in India and it’s been turned into as if it is some kind of sensationalist pot boiler. It is not.”
Let’s say that the Indians are right and Lelyveld is being disingenuous, that while he never says that Gandhi was bisexual, the book certainly implies it. Is that a reason to ban the book? If he were bisexual, does it make Gandhi’s contribution to the world any less valuable?
How strange in a country of the Kama Sutra and the erotic carvings at the Khajuraho temple that a books that depicts someone as sexual in this way should cause such consternation. It does make the point how cultural practice and religious doctrine sometimes don’t align.
It is especially disturbing that in Santa Clara, in the middle of Silicon Valley and the home of the oldest institution of higher learning in California, an organization walked away from discussing a book because it “didn’t want to be involved in any controversy.”
I don’t expect little from small-minded people, such as Terry Jones and those who murdered the UN workers and others in Afghanistan. Such zealotry and bigotry won’t be tamed by moral shame. But I had hoped more from India and from those in the US who have roots and connections there.
Still, it is a long way from cancelling an event with a polite letter to killing people you don’t like.