Pastor Terry Jones, the leader of a small Florida church, made news by proclaiming Sept. 11 “International Burn a Koran Day” (though now the pastor says he will not do it, since he says Muslim leaders are reconsidering building a mosque center near the World Trade Center site).
Although the supposed “international” event would have been limited to a few acres surrounded by cow pastures in rural Gainesville, it provoked fear, outrage, and plenty of controversy.
Amid the outcry over free speech and threats of violence, several real issues have been largely overlooked. The first is the news media’s elevation of a publicity-seeking jester to a king.
Journalists often eagerly report the most sensational statements they can find, and who says it is often far less important than what is said; thus an obscure firebrand pastor’s comments are suddenly deemed just as important and newsworthy as those of President Obama, Gen. David Petraeus, and Muslim leaders.
In a rush to express their indignant outrage, Islam defenders and the media have mistaken Jones for the voice of the country. It’s like confusing the catty office gossiper with Anderson Cooper, or the National Enquirer with The New York Times.
No one took a poll of Americans and found that Terry Jones represents our collective voice. What journalists and high-profile Muslims alike don’t seem to understand is that responding to such behavior — from any source, no matter how insignificant — just creates the controversy that people like Jones crave.
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was exactly correct when she identified the news media as the kernel of the problem: “It is regrettable that a pastor in Gainesville, Fla., with a church of no more than 50 people can make this outrageous and distrustful, disgraceful plan and get the world’s attention, but that’s the world we live in right now.”
The issue is not that Jones wants to burn a book — he can do that just about anywhere he likes, at any time — but instead that Jones knows television cameras will happily broadcast his striking the match and setting Islam’s holiest book afire. If the press would ignore him, he’d be irrelevant.
The second issue, closely related to the first, is the feared retaliation of (some) Muslims. As insulting as burning the Koran is to many Muslims, the widespread fear over how they might react is even more insulting. Most Muslims recognize that Jones is an attention-seeking religious zealot who does not represent American belief nor public policy.
Quite the contrary, Jones has been widely condemned by respected leaders of all faiths and political parties. Could images of Jones’s Koran burning incite radical Muslims to violence? Of course it could. But those Muslims are already at war with America; Jones’s little bonfire would have little effect on the vast majority of Muslims.
Whether the Koran burning will go on as scheduled remains to be seen, but the controversy should be understood in context. The real issue is not Jones and his gasoline and stack of Korans; it is about fear and ignorance — on all sides. By overreacting to the fear of religious retaliation, Islam’s defenders are actually legitimizing the very fear and xenophobia Jones is promoting.
Photo: Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center speaks to the media, Sept. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)