THE other day I was challenged as to why I hadn’t fervently chased after the story of the International Burn a Qur’an Day. This event had been promoted by an obscure Floridian pastor, Terry Jones, a man renowned in the local Gainesville community for his gay-bashing and Islamophobia.
This churchman, the head of the Dove World Outreach Centre, wanted to commemorate the ninth anniversary of 9/11 by protesting against the proposed construction of an Islamic community centre – Project 51 – four blocks from Ground-Zero in New York.
Book burning – especially of holy texts – is a highly offensive and intolerant act, and I believed that the be-whiskered Pastor Terry Jones didn’t warrant anything more than a few Twitters.
If he wanted to be so arrogant and so stupid as to burn the Qur’an, it was – well – his democratic right to make an ass of himself on YouTube. But he didn’t deserve the mainstream media spotlight. Foolishness, as integral as it might be to freedom of speech, is best ignored.
But Pastor Jones, the shepherd to a flock 50 followers, was a Biblical fundamentalist who craved the limelight. Boasting no clerical qualifications, and a dubious track record to boot, discretion was not part of his valour.
After serving in a sister church to the Dove Centre in Germany, a Cologne court in 2002 had convicted Pastor Jones for falsely calling himself “doctor”. The Gainesville Sun reports that he had also been fired from his position for allegedly dipping into church coffers.
Pastor Jones, who opines that Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism are from Satan too, is the author of Islam is of the Devil, a work he penned in 2008. The BBC reports him saying that he has no experience of the Qur’an.
This, I felt, was not exactly the CV of a man with the necessary gravitas to be indulged by world headlines. And yet it was those very headlines that he so consciously courted, especially after he’d persisted with his plans to burn the Qur’an.
And as an effigy of Jones blazed in an angry Kabul, it took a phone call from US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, to warn him of the possible consequences for US troops in Afghanistan if his Qur’anic bonfire was ever lit in Gainesville.
Condemnations from the FBI, General David Petraeus, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, NATO chief Anders Rassmussen and President Barack Obama followed.
Ever the hickey showman, Pastor Jones milked his moment to the end. He met with Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, in a blaze of publicity. He then indulged in brinkmanship, claiming that Imam Feisal Abdurauf in New York had agreed to relocate the centre. (He hadn’t).
By last weekend, Pastor Jones had to call his bluff and he announced that he would not burn the Qur’an.
The reason why I think Pastor Jones was bluffing is that the Gainesville Fire Department had said – long before the story broke – that it would not grant the Dove World Outreach Centre a burning permit.
But Pastor Jones is not the only player in what has become a farce of irrational prejudice surrounding Project 51.
The project is the construction of a 13-story community centre with a swimming pool, conference facilities, basketball court, culinary school and devotional area. There has never been any mention of the devotional space being used exclusively as a mosque.
Its mission statement says that the centre would be dedicated to pluralism, community service, education and empowerment.
Its leading figure, Imam Feisal Abdurauf, described as a “mystical and moderate” bridge-builder by those who’ve met him, has been an imam in New York for three decades, and gives FBI agents sensitivity training on Islam.
Professor Gary Leupp of Tufts University has described the Project 51 saga as the “chronology of a bizarre controversy”, for Pastor Jones was only capitalising on events that had started in December 2009.
This was when the New York Times ran an article on the project, citing two Jewish leaders and the mother of a 9/11 victim in support. Fox News interviewed the imam’s wife, Daisy Khan, and gave the thumbs up, as did the New York City Board Committee in May this year. New York Mayor, Mike Bloomberg, also added his blessing.
But enter another bit player, Pamela Geller, of Atlas Shrugs blog fame. The author of a book that claims Barack Obama is the son of Malcolm X, and leader of Stop the Islamisation of America, she led a protest at the Project 51 site.
Geller was projected into the mainstream when New York Post columnist, Andrea Peyser, incorrectly identified her as a human rights activist, and interviews with CNN and Fox followed.
And as conservative politicians such as Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich weighed in, nation-wide controversy erupted. Palin twittered that Project 51 had to be “refudiated” (sic) and Gingrich trumpeted that it would be a symbol of Islamic “triumphalism.”
Justin Quinn, a right-wing blogger, suggested that Project 51 proved that Muslims could knock “our buildings down, murder our citizens and then use our own laws against us so they can laugh in our faces”.
The Tea Party Express, yet another Islamophobic US grouping, churlishly added that the centre would be yet another place for terrorists to worship their “monkey-god”.
Opinion polls on the matter were contradictory. CNN revealed that 68% of US citizens were opposed to Project 51. Fox claimed that 61% said it had a right to exist, but that 64% didn’t want a Muslims to construct it. A Marist poll in New York said that 69% of New Yorkers supported the centre.
If that wasn’t enough, for refusing to be pigeon-holed on Mid-East issues in an interview with New York’s WABC Radio, Imam Feisal Abdurauf was accused of being the recipient of terrorist money.
The big question, as Professor Leupp asks, is how a modest project mooted by a mainstream US Muslim group – approved by New York’s city mayor, Rabbis, churchmen and the New York public – could have been transformed into an attack on Islam in the US.
The sad fact, he concludes, is that Islamophobia – based on irrational, manufactured fear – is still rampant and politically current in the US nine years after 9/11.
But all is not lost, however. For out of the cacophony of extremisms, reason is beginning to pull things back to centre. The Reverend Deborah Lindsay from the Community Church in Ohio has said that instead of a burn the Qur’an day, Americans should rather have a read the Qur’an day.
And the irrepressible film-maker, Michael Moore, has said that to re-establish traditional American values, Project 51 should not be built four blocks from Ground-Zero, but right on top of it.