Thursday, September 09, 2010

Ask Tamburlaine: Burning Korans Is a Bad Idea

cross-posted at Dagblog

Who on Earth is crazy enough to burn the Koran? Until two weeks ago, my answer has always been "raging lunatics in Elizabethan drama." You know, stage characters from the age of Shakespeare, the kind of people who are prone to cutting off their own hands, biting off their tongues and spitting them on the stage, or baking their enemies in pies and serving them for dinner. The people who make Hamlet seem well-adjusted. Certainly, I didn't think of it as the kind of thing real people did.

The Koran burner my students know is Tamburlaine the Great, the world conqueror in Christopher Marlowe's two-part extravaganza Tamburlaine the Great. This was one of the great hits of its time, likely bigger than most of Shakespeare's plays, and Shakespeare's own characters quote it from the stage. But since no one teaches it in high schools, and almost no one teaches it in college, here's the basic story:

A raving megalomaniac conquers most of the world and makes speeches about it. Nobody can stop him. The crazier he gets, the more he wins. Then he burns the Koran (just because) and BAM! He's dead.

And yes, this play was written in a Christian country, for Christian audiences who tended to think of Muslims (like the Pope) as agents of the Devil. But even they thought Koran-burning was a no-no.

Now, I have actually exposed unsuspecting college students to Tamburlaine. And they all say the same thing: the dude's crazy. For ten acts, he's running around putting women and children to the sword. He's putting heads of state in cages and using them as footstools. He's making enemy kings draw his chariot around the stage, like they're horses. He cuts himself with a sword, to show one of his good-for-nothing sons who the real tough guy is. He generally behaves like Kim Jong-Il off his meds. And no matter what crazy thing he's done, he comes back later to top it with something crazier. Then, in Part Two, Act Five, he sets a Koran on fire. And that's just too much for everybody.

And what does he have to say after he does that?

But, stay. I feel myself distempered suddenly.

That's right. It's the Don't Burn People's Holy Books Flu, and it kills him within a scene.

So take it from heavily fictionalized crazy people, kids: don't burn Korans, or any other religious works that hundreds of millions of people value. It only leads to trouble. Try to behave like the saner and more rational characters from English Renaissance drama, like Titus Andronicus, Richard III, or Lady Macbeth.

I wouldn't bring this up if Tamburlaine were only an imaginary character. But of course, fictional characters have their way of influencing real people, and some of Tamburlaine's admirers were so excited by him that they set out to be little Tamburlaines themselves. But they were going to make it happen right there in London! And if Tamburlaine the Great had been a big hero by killing so many many filthy foreigners like Arabs and Egyptians and Turks, the little Tamburlaines would kill some filthy outsiders themselves! Which filthy outsiders?

The Protestant refugees from Europe who'd taken refuge in London. Like bakers and shoemakers.

Some of them left a note on a church door in 1593, promising to murder all of the refugees and their children (who were foreigners, after all):

Since words nor threats nor any other thing
Can make you to avoid this certain ill,
We'll cut your throats, in your temples praying
Not Paris massacre so much blood did spill.

It goes on and on like that for dozens of lines.

It's signed "Tamburlaine."

And there's the lesson. When you train people to focus their rage and fear on some foreign scapegoat, to imagine Muslims or Turks or some other group of "strangers" as frightening and inhuman, there can come a moment when the people you've gotten worked up unpredictably switch their fear and hate and thirst for blood to another group of "outsiders" that you didn't expect, some group that's closer at hand and easy to get at.

And once the mob forms, it's too late to say, "No no, we didn't mean them." Once you start whipping up a mob to go after those stinking foreigners, you don't get to tell them exactly who counts as a stinking foreigners and who doesn't. They know who's not one of them. Mobs don't listen to lectures about details. It's the principle of the thing they care about.

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