One of the lessons from the Quran-burning circus in Florida, whether it ever actually takes place or not, is that the labels we use to make sense of the world are becoming more and more complex. This is bad news. Labels are supposed to simplify life, not make it more complicated. Nine years to the day since al Qaeda attacked New York City, murdered nearly 3,000 people, and changed the world we live in, our labels seem to be leading us down some strange paths.
In Pakistan, "Talibanization" is a label used to describe regressive and parochial conservatism, not just the political ascendancy of Mullah Omar and his extremist disciples. When we use the label "mullah," it is not the same thing as honoring someone by calling him "Father" or "Reverend." Instead, we're most likely referring to a person's narrow-mindedness, bigotry, and possible racism. So when we try to explain to fellow Pakistanis how the United States is much grander than the pettiness of Quran-burning circuses or mosque-defying extremists, we don't use the same labels that Americans would. Describing the ideological kith and kin of opponents of the Park51 project -- including the fringe element of folks like Terry Jones and his flock at the Dove World Outreach Center -- with terms like the moral majority, far-right evangelicals, or even neocons is useless.
Instead, when we try to explain what is happening in America, we simply say that a great country is going through a kind of Talibanization -- led by mullahs like Newt Gingrich, Pamela Geller, and the occasional Terry Jones.
On the ninth anniversary of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, applying these labels to right-of-center America may seem provocative and harsh. After all, even the most grotesque Islamophobia in the United States is not guilty of the horrors enacted by the Taliban, in Afghanistan and beyond. More than any other sin, the Taliban tolerated Osama bin Laden, defended his right to stay among them, and refused to hand him over after he boastfully acknowledged his role as the chairman and CEO of al Qaeda's war on America.
But consider the alternative: What if we didn't present the Quran-burners and mosque-attackers as part of a fringe movement of ideologically driven extremists? Then of course, the only other possibility is for us to accept that International Quran Burning Day and the controversy over the Park51 community center both in different ways signify mainstream America's growing discomfort with Islam. Simply put, if the Islamophobia of an American fringe is in fact not on the fringes, but in the mainstream, then the United States has an Islamophobia problem.