THE HIGH-POWERED attention being directed at Florida pastor Terry Jones — a backwater extremist whose prominence derives solely from his plan to burn the Koran — is painful to most Americans. The entreaty from General David Petraeus, the personal call from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the comments by President Obama — all serve to aggrandize a figure on the distant fringes of the fundamentalist Christian community. But the damage to America’s image, and the danger that a mass burning of copies of the Koran would spark a backlash among Muslims around the world, are great enough to justify extraordinary measures.
Yesterday evening, it was unclear whether Jones would try to revive his burning, planned for today. If he does, it would at least have been condemned by much of the country, hopefully establishing in the eyes of the world that the destruction of religious texts is not, in any sense, the American way. Nor is the hatred and intolerance behind such an act. If Jones does not go ahead with the burning, it would be a welcome victory for rationality over ignorance.
One of the saddest aspects of the Jones fiasco is that it has the potential to revive and exacerbate some of the cultural divides of recent years. Jones’s message — that Islam is inherently violent — has been dismissed by almost everyone, starting with former president George W. Bush nine years ago. Still, Jones’s claim may have a visceral appeal to people who’ve heard a lot about Islamic terrorism. But it doesn’t withstand even a cursory inspection of history and theology. Just as Christians don’t have to feel responsible for the evils of the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades, mainstream Muslims don’t need to apologize for what Islamic extremists are doing in the name of their religion.
Rather than promote understanding, the political world sometimes indulges the kinds of collective anxieties that lead to Islamophobia, justifying them as the product of understandable passions or even “values.’’ Thus, the plans for a Koran burning in Florida. It’s destructive. It’s obnoxious. It’s morally wrong on countless levels. And even at the risk of giving undeserved attention to a minister who represents the crudest caricature of the most extreme American attitudes, it’s necessary to say so.