The Koran controversy: what was that all about?

It was the profound jitteriness of Western society that allowed one cranky pastor from Florida with 50 followers to hold the whole world to ransom.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Last Saturday’s commemorations of the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks were unlike those in prior years. Yes, the ceremonies at Ground Zero in New York, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania were, as before, rather solemn events, with moments of silence and names of victims read out. But around the country, the day was not just a remembrance – for the first time, it was also politicised.

Duelling demonstrators faced off in lower Manhattan over the proposed Islamic centre near to the Ground Zero site. Rallies were held across the country, and controversies over the meaning of Islam swirled in the media. The 9/11 anniversary was said to be an occasion that brought Americans together, but now it seemed to be splitting them apart.

At the heart of the day was the ongoing story about the pastor in Florida, Terry Jones, who threatened to burn copies of the Koran. This was a real circus. Jones flew up to Manhattan to try to meet with Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam who is founding the proposed Islamic centre. He initially told a press conference that he had negotiated a deal to cancel his burning in return for the imam agreeing to move the centre further away from Ground Zero, but that turned out to be untrue, as he never even met with Rauf. Having gained tremendous publicity and been elevated into a power-broker, Jones decided in the end to cancel his bonfire event.

It is remarkable how an obscure and eccentric individual like Jones became so prominent and was taken so seriously. His following at the Dove Outreach Centre in Florida amounts to 50 people. The citizens of his home town of Gainesville routinely refer to him as a ‘lunatic’ and ‘weirdo’.

Jones’ newfound high profile was not due to his proposed stunt, nor even to the violence in Afghanistan at anti-Jones demonstrations. It was thanks to the Obama administration and other world leaders. American General David Petraeus made Jones a household name last week when he warned that Jones’ Koran-burning ‘could endanger troops’ and ‘endanger the overall [war] effort’ in Afghanistan. Petraeus opened a floodgate of criticisms of Jones. Obama felt obliged to comment, calling Jones’ event ‘a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda’. He then had the US secretary of defence, Robert Gates, call Jones directly. Then elites from around the world piled in to the debate: Tony Blair, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, the Vatican. And of course, America’s self-appointed moral guardian, Angelina Jolie, spoke out against Jones.

Thus, it was the Western elites who turned an oddball non-entity into a major player, setting off this whole silly spectacle. This story could so easily have blown over, or been ignored, or at best been a local issue in Florida. Indeed, the New York Times reported on another renegade pastor, in Topeka, Kansas, whose tiny flock burned a Koran and filmed it – but that was in 2008, and it received virtually no attention from political leaders and virtually no media coverage.

The elites’ sensitivity to Jones’ call to burn Korans in 2010 highlights the fragility of the Western psyche more than anything else. A confident political leadership would not have viewed Jones’ escapade as a threat to peace domestically and worldwide. It is important to note that the Obama administration didn’t leap on Jones’ Koran-burning in order cynically to politicise it and score some points, but because it genuinely felt that it was a threat, something that could destabilise global relations. It is testament to the American elite’s feeling of a loss of grip over its own society and over its ‘conquered lands’ in Afghanistan that it feared that one act would unleash racism and violence at home and war overseas. This reveals a profoundly disturbed mindset: a constant fear of anarchy, and a loss of authority and control.

The reaction to Jones also shows that accusations of ‘intolerance’ have become all about pre-judging the public’s stupid, backward tendencies. Today, fear of intolerance is really fear of the unpredictable masses. The idea that one burning would provoke anti-Muslim anger among whites and vengefulness among Muslims is to look upon the public as a tinderbox of tension, a pogrom waiting to happen. All that is needed is a starting pistol from a mad pastor in Florida, apparently. This fear factor contributed to turning the promised event into something unnecessarily huge, as it created a feeling that anything could happen if Jones actually went through with it.

The talk of ‘intolerance’ is really an expression of fear and loathing of people, an expectation that they will instantly turn intolerant unless guarded from inflammatory imagery and ideas. Ironically, it is the liberal elite’s intolerance of public attitudes that leads them to promote tolerance as a rule we must never break.

Indeed, Jones’ emergence can be traced to the elites’ promotion of ‘tolerance’. Over the course of the summer, Republican politicians Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich cynically sought to start a Culture War over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque’. In response, Obama, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and others said the principle of religious freedom and tolerance was at stake, and warned about bigotry taking off. Their message of incipient anti-Muslim bigotry was grabbed by the media, which set off on a search to find examples of ‘Islamophobia’ in America. The Jones story fit the bill, and the pastor began to have more media hangers-on than followers. From there, reports of the proposed Koran-burning were picked up by Islamists in Afghanistan, and then Petraeus felt the need to weigh in.

What makes things even worse and more confusing is that the warnings about intolerance become a self-fulfilling prophecy. People can see how a nobody like Jones was able effectively to hold world leaders to ransom: listen to me or I’ll burn the Koran and set off a race war. Now others will no doubt get the idea that they, too, can become elevated to global importance if they just think of an outrageous stunt.

The transformation of a local nuisance into a civilisational problem also gives a licence to aggrieved Muslims to protest and complain. It actually invites them to do so, to view isolated acts by cranks as acts of unparalleled evil that they will, naturally, go mad about. The West says ‘they might go mad if we allow this Koran-burning to go ahead’ – and not surprisingly, they do go mad. This shows the mutually reinforcing relationship between Western fears and Islamic radicalism today. The West needs examples of Islamic intolerance and anti-Western protesting to show that this is a major conflict, and the Islamists need the occasional Koran-burning or slur against Islam to show that the West hates Islam. Both sides are locked in a deadly, mutually reinforcing embrace, needing the other side’s performance of grievance or anger to justify their position.

The politicisation of the 9/11 anniversary, and the Jones controversy in particular, provides a very good snapshot of the state of the so-called ‘war on terror’ today. It reveals an American elite that lacks confidence in its people and which is unable to articulate a clear answer to the question of what it stands for. It genuinely believes it is promoting freedom and making the world safe, but its campaign for ‘tolerance’ exaggerates the threat of anti-Islam bigotry, invites nutjobs here and abroad to go off, and ends up making things worse.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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