Bigotry and prejudice thrive on constructed images. These images are the product of selective knowledge and complete ignorance. Bigotry and prejudice rely on uncritical judgments and swift conclusions. Those who possess the power to construct an image also possess the power of judgment, and the power to defeat or support bigotry and prejudice.
This Conference is a symbolic construct. It is a symbol for the sanctuary of thought and the repose of knowledge. It is a symbol for the reflective life offered by Islam and the book, and for freedom from the delusions of bigotry and hallucinations of ignorance.
One recent summer, two Palestinians were suspected of planning to bomb the New York City subway. In the process of arresting the suspects, the police shot them. The Muslim fellow who turned in the suspects was placed under deportation proceedings, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced to the world that there was “no question” that the two suspects intended to “attack the United States, to attack Israel, and to attack Jewish interests.”
Many writers, commentators, and politicians endlessly spoke about the Islamic threat, political Islam, Islamic fundamentalism, and Islamic terrorism. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was criticized for admitting the suspects into the United States although Israel had accused one of them of being a member of a terrorist organization. Effectively, the INS was criticized for allowing Palestinians into the country and for not allowing Israel to regulate the ports of the United States.
The incident and the response to the incident fed into the constructed image of Islam and Muslims. Once again, a few individuals were made the representatives of one of the world’s main religions and its followers. Terrorists refuse to distinguish between the guilty and innocent. Taking their cue from terrorists, many commentators refused to distinguish between suspicion and guilt and between guilt and innocence.
On August 24, 1997, the Washington Times reported that the FBI suspected that the NYC bomb plot was a hoax. FBI and CIA investigations were revealing that the suspects did not have any paramilitary training and did not have any particularly strong religious convictions. The FBI suspected that those involved were motivated by the idea of collecting reward money rather than supporting a political goal. Apparently, the suspects learned of something called the Heroes Program, offered by the State Department, which offered rewards to those providing information about terrorist operations. The suspects evidently came up with a scheme to plant the pipe bombs, report them, and collect up to $2 million in rewards.
Whether these allegations are true or not is beside the point. This version of the incident, which does not comfortably fit within the constructed image of Muslims, was largely ignored by most commentators. Mayor Giuliani made no apologies, and so-called specialists did not endlessly pontificate about what the recent FBI and CIA investigations in the case tell us about Islam and Muslims. No one went blabbing on about how this incident is indicative of the crises of Islam in the age of post modernity, the Muslim rage over the loss of identity, or the long history of confrontations between Islam and the West. There was complete silence. This version of the facts did not fit within the constructed image and, hence, after the euphoria of yammer, there was complete silence. But even all of this is not the point.
The point is that neither in the construction or deconstruction of the popular image do Muslims play a role other than the role of subjects. The subjects of a discourse provide the raw material from which a discourse is formed. The subjects do not themselves engage or direct the discourse. Muslims sit passively as they are accused and exonerated; as they are constructed and deconstructed. The problem is not the lack of Muslim activists or activism. The problem is the absence of those who have the financial and intellectual power to co-opt and reconstruct the discourse and the image.
Most politicians, commentators, educators, and writers are not Muslim, and have no reason to appease Muslims. Most of those who fund politicians, media organizations, schools, and Islamic studies programs are not Muslim and have no reason to cater to Muslim demands. Consequently, Muslims are powerless to direct the discourse or define the issues around which the discourse is to flow. Even more unfortunately, most Muslims do not appreciate or are not interested in the value of the discourse, the construction of an image, or the symbolic significance of a Conference of Books.