Log in

Tue, Sep. 14th, 2010, 07:34 pm
essius: On the semiotics of two recent controversies concerning America’s view of Islam

Dean Rader’s recent semiotic commentaries on the Cordoba controversy and Terry Jones’ (former) intentions to burn copies of the Qur’an—two issues that have received widespread media attention in the past several weeks—underscore that what is at issue as these events are unfolding is not mere physical, mind-independent reality, but reality as apprehended from within competing sign-systems. For as Robert Corrington observes, “Not all signs or sign systems are compossible in the same semiotic space. Part of the how of world semiosis involves an intense competition between and among sign systems” (A Semiotic Theory of Theology and Philosophy, pp. 190–1).

In Rader’s blog post “Designing Controversy: The Semiotics of Cordoba House,” we first turn to “the most interesting controversy in American culture in ages—whether it is appropriate to erect a mosque and Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan, just two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Centers.” Rader highlights an interesting semiotic paradox: whereas the Cordoba Center’s architecture is “ameliorative and even unifying,” the terminology many have been using to describe it has been downright “divisive.” Radar asks,
    Why has the name and purpose of the Cordoba Center taken precedence over its rather innocuous design? In short, the symbology of the design does not traffic in the same cultural associations as a term like “mosque.” One connotes Islam’s Islamness; one connotes Islam’s Americanness.
This is, of course, not a coincidence. The project is backed by the American Society for Muslim Advancement and the Cordoba Initiative, whose members have made sure the building does not resemble a typical mosque. Rader says its architecture arguably sacrifices the “semiotics of Islam” in order to assimilate itself to “the semiotics of New York (and by extension) the semiotics of America.” Indeed, he further suggests a connection to 9/11:
    It was the semiotics of America—its tallest buildings, their symbology—that the terrorists attacked, and it is that symbology the Cordoba House seems to embrace. Indeed, it is remarkable how similar the proposed building looks to the original twin towers—a detail no one seems to be talking about.
But the more emphasized connection has been altogether negative in significance:
    What people are talking about is the notion of a mosque near Ground Zero. For many Americans, a mosque is a shelter for Muslim extremists (even if it isn’t). It’s a place that cultivates, indoctrinates, and celebrates the symbology of Islam. It is ultimately, for those who oppose the Cordoba House, a place that makes sacred the ideals that led to the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, it is this sign-system—one constructed out of fear, ignorance, and malice—that has gained greater media coverage. Its infiltration of the American Lebenswelt is nothing short of insidious. Indeed, some have identified its root as “Islamophobia.”*

This brings us to Rader’s second post, “On Burning the Quran: Why It’s Really about Semiotics.” Florida pastor Terry Jones’ decision to burn the Qur’an (from which he has since appeared to have retreated) is not merely a physical event, but an importantly semiotic one. That is, there is nothing inherent to the book itself, or to the act of burning it, that is offensive. It is, rather, what the act signifies. To some, book-burning is “inherently” offensive. To others, the offense is aggravated by the fact that it is a holy book that is to have been cast into the flames:
    In reality, there is no actual danger in burning pages of a book. But, as General Petraeus notes, it is the image of Americans burning Qurans that concerns him. The danger, then, lies in the semiotic realm.

    In all religions, fire carries with it a purgative and a punitive signification. For Rev. Jones, watching the Quran burn in the flames of denunciation is in concert, symbolically, with his claim that Islam is of the Devil.

    Americans are, again, misguided if they obsess about this proposed burning on legal or moral grounds. That’s not where the real meaning is made. True meaning, real consequences take place in the semiotic, the symbolic, the cultural realm, and it is in that realm where discussions about the wisdom of such actions need to take place.
The “great irony,” Rader notes, “is that burning sacred texts is not anti-American; it’s wholly American.” For it is our “freedom to symbolically destroy another symbol” which, “in part, what makes America itself a symbol worth attacking.”

Of course, much more needs to be said on the semiotic situation as it has developed and continues to develop.** These two politically intense issues—as the media has made all too clear—have become inexorably intertwined. Although it is often difficult for us to rinse our eyes and see things clearly, it is important to attend to the nuances that have made things unnecessarily complicated. For the devil continues to lurk in the proverbial details and not, as Jones alleges, within Islamic doctrine.

*The attitudes of those who oppose the Cordoba Center may perhaps be illustrated by the following picture:

**So far little work has been published from an explicitly semiotic viewpoint on the subject of Islam, but the interested reader may take a look at Roger Joseph’s article “Toward a Semiotics of Middle Eastern Cultures,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 12 (1980), 319-29; Lawrence Rosen’s “Responsibility and Compensatory Justice in Arab Culture and Law” in Semiotics, Self, and Society (eds. Lee and Urban, 1989); and Ian Richard Netton’s Allah Transcendent: Studies in the Structure and Semiotics of Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Cosmology (1995).