Wednesday, September 08, 2010
Pastor’s Plan to Burn Korans Adds to Tensions - NYTimes.com
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — If building an Islamic center near ground zero amounts to the epitome of Muslim insensitivity, as critics of the project have claimed, what should the world make of Terry Jones, the evangelical pastor here who plans to memorialize the Sept. 11 attacks with a bonfire of Korans?
Mr. Jones, 58, a former hotel manager with a red face and a white handlebar mustache, argues that as an American Christian he has a right to burn Islam’s sacred book because “it’s full of lies.” And in another era, he might have been easily ignored, as he was last year when he posted a sign at his church declaring “Islam is of the devil.”
But now the global spotlight has shifted. With the debate in New York putting religious tensions front and center, Mr. Jones has suddenly attracted thousands of fans and critics on Facebook, while around the world he is being presented as a symbol of American anti-Islamic sentiment.
Muslim leaders in several countries, including Egypt and Indonesia, have formally condemned him and his church, the Dove World Outreach Center.
An Islamic group in England has also incorporated his efforts into a YouTube video that encourages Muslims to “rise up and act,” widening a concern that Mr. Jones — though clearly a fringe figure with only 50 members in his church — could spark riots or terrorism.
“Can you imagine what this will do to our image around the world?” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. “And the additional danger it will add whenever there is an American presence in Iraq or Afghanistan?”
Mr. Jones, in a lengthy interview at his church, said he sincerely hoped that his planned Koran-burning would not lead to violence. He dismissed the idea that it could put American troops at greater risk, and — echoing his sermons — he said that his church was being persecuted.
He said his bank recently demanded immediate repayment of the $140,000 balance on the church mortgage; that his property insurance had been canceled since he announced in late July that he intended to burn copies of the Koran; and that death threats now come in regularly.
“We have to be careful,” he said. He tapped a holster on the right hip of his jean shorts; it held a .40-caliber pistol, which he said he was licensed to carry. “The overall response,” he added, “has been much greater than we expected.”
Mr. Jones who seems to spend much of his time inside a dank, dark office with a poster from the movie “Braveheart” and a picture of former President George W. Bush, appears to be largely oblivious to the potential consequences of his plans. Speaking in short sentences with a matter-of-fact drawl, he said that he could not understand why other Christians, including the nation’s largest evangelical association, had called for him to cancel “International Burn a Koran Day.”
He acknowledged that it had brought in at least $1,000 in donations. But he said that the interviews he had done with around 150 news outlets all over the world were useful mainly because they had helped him “send a message to Islam and the pushers of Shariah law: that it is not what we want.”
Mr. Jones said that nothing in particular had set him off. Asked about his knowledge of the Koran, he said plainly: “I have no experience with it whatsoever. I only know what the Bible says.”
Nonetheless, his position and variations on his tactics have become more common, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Florida in particular has had a rise in anti-Islamic activity. In May, an arsonist set off a pipe bomb at a mosque in Jacksonville in what authorities called an act of domestic terrorism. A mosque and Islamic school south of Miami was vandalized twice last year, the first time with a spray of 51 bullets.
Just as disturbing to Florida’s Muslims, and to many Christians and Jews, is that anti-Islamic rhetoric has begun to enter the mainstream through Republican political candidates.
Some of the opposition predated the controversy about the proposed Islamic center near ground zero. In March, for example, Allen West, a retired Army officer running for Congress in Broward County, told a group of supporters that “Islam is not a religion” but rather “a vicious enemy” that was “infiltrating” the United States. (A campaign spokesman said last week that Mr. West meant to refer to radical Islam, not Islam generally.)
Ron McNeil, a candidate for Congress in the Florida Panhandle, told a group of high school and middle school students last week that Islam’s plan “is to destroy our way of life.” He added: “It’s our place as Christians to stand up for the word of God and what the Bible says.”
Similar sentiments now flow daily into the e-mail inbox of the Dove World Outreach Center. Mr. Jones said that the negative e-mails outnumbered the positive by about 3 to 1, but that strangers had sent 20 copies of the Koran and a church worker produced hundreds of supportive e-mails that had come in over the past three weeks.
A dozen of those messages revealed a wide range of motivations. For a few people — a Christian in Afghanistan, an Iraqi in Massachusetts, a Jew who called his co-religionists in the United States “soft in the head” — direct experience with Islamic extremists seemed to have darkened their views. Others seemed motivated by little more than hate, arguing that Korans should be barbecued with pork, which is banned by Islam.
Mr. Jones’s plan faced a new hurdle last week when the Gainesville Fire Department rejected his request for a burning permit. Mr. Jones said he would go ahead anyway (“it’s just politics”), and he predicted a quite a scene.
Some of his neighbors, like Shirley Turner, a retiree who shivered with disgust when Mr. Jones’s name came up in conversation, are already planning to protest with signs calling for unity. More than a dozen houses of worship, of various faiths, also intend to respond collectively on the weekend of Sept. 11 by “affirming the validity of all sacred books,” said Larry Reimer, pastor of the United Church of Christ.
Some pastors even plan to read from the Koran in their services.
For local Muslims like Saeed Khan, who came here in the 1970s to study for a Ph.D. in biology at the University of Florida, the collective rejection of Mr. Jones represents the America they want to believe in. In an interview at an Islamic center that used to be a Brown Derby restaurant, Dr. Khan said that “Mr. Jones is hijacking Christianity” just as “Al Qaeda hijacked Islam.”
What saddens him most, he said, is the lasting effect on Muslim youth. He now has three grandchildren under age 3 growing up in Gainesville, and he shook his head at the story of a friend’s daughter who woke up in the middle of the night and asked her mother, “Why don’t they like us?”
Still, like many others, he rejected the moment’s swirl of anger. Even if Muslims outside the United States respond to the planned Koran burning with protests, or worse, Mr. Khan said he would spend his Sept. 11 doing the same thing he did last year. He will be downtown, a few miles from Mr. Jones, feeding the homeless.