The news
about the Florida pastor, Terry Jones, threatening to burn copies of the Qur’an
outside his church on the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the
World Trade Centre bodes ill for the future, even if in the end he did not go through
with it. The threat to burn the Qur’an in Florida was just the most extreme
example of growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the USA and around the western
world. Across the US there were
reports of attacks on Muslim targets and the FBI had to investigate crimes in
four different states ranging from windows being smashed at an Islamic
centre in California to a fire being set at one in Texas. Sadly, President
Obama reacted to this by arguing that the actions of the fanatical pastor would
lead to the death of more American soldiers in Afghanistan; and it was playing
into the hands of Al Quaida. Would the book burning be acceptable, then, if it
did not lead to such retaliation from the Islam world?

This book
burning threat has an ugly precedent in the history of Granada. In 1499
Cardinal Cisneros at the head of the Spanish Inquisition ordered the burning of
all Arabic manuscripts in Granada (except those dealing with medicine, I
suppose for pragmatic reasons). At the end of that year the contents of the
city’s university library went up in flames on a bonfire in Plaza Bib Rambla. Seven years earlier
the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, had conquered the city from the
Moslem Moors, with the promise that its religion and culture would be
respected. At first, the new Catholic rulers tried to convert the Moslems
through a process of argument and persuasive indoctrination. When this was seen
to be ineffective, Cisneros turned to more direct methods to remove any
possible subversive elements within Spain. Enforced conversion through
compulsory mass baptisms backed up with threats and imprisonment for the more
reluctant provoked three years of guerrilla warfare throughout the former
kingdom of Granada. The revolt was suppressed and Moslems resistance went
underground, one last rebellion being put down in 1568. The Moors (the Islamic
inhabitants of Spain), who now were not allowed to practice their religion,
wear their normal everyday dress, speak their own language in public, or
practice any of their traditional customs, were finally expelled from the
country in 1609. In modern terms: the failure to win the hearts and minds of
the Moslems by Cisneros led to a long sustained ‘war on terror’.

Book burning, of course, also played a part of the notorious “Reichskristallnacht” in Nazi Germany on
the night of 9 November 1938.

On this occasion state sanctioned thugs went on
the rampage smashing the shop windows of Jewish businesses, ransacking Jewish
homes, and setting fire to synagogues. This date and these events mark the
beginning of the holocaust. Unable to expel the Jews in sufficient numbers, the
Nazis sought other means to achieve the final solution to their ‘Jewish
problem’. In this case, the burning of books and buildings ended in attempted
genocide – the burning of human beings.

Granada 1499. Germany 1938. (Almost) Florida 2010. There is something
very sinister about book burning, a fact Ray Bradbury skilfully exploited in
his sci fi novel Fahrenheit 451.