Lifestyle & Belief

Quran burning: fuel on the Afghan fire?

KABUL, Afghanistan — The tension has been building in the Afghan capital for the past few weeks. On Monday, scattered demonstrations closed down several streets in the city. Educated Afghans with access to the internet have been circulating the news.

The capital is braced for major protests after Terry Jones, head of the so-called Dove World Outreach Center, called on people of good faith to burn a Quran on Sept. 11 in commemoration of the victims of the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

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I became aware of the growing drama when a friend told me how his 12-year-old sister, Maryam, had brought home a tattered sheet of paper the other day, showing it to the family in apparent distress.

“Look here, it says they are going to burn the Quran in America,” she said, her dark eyes wide.

The streets of Kabul are littered with photocopies describing the hate-drenched, Islamophobic rhetoric of “Pastor” Jones — the preacher based in Gainesville, Florida.

One can only hope that the lucky coincidence of the Eid holiday with Jones’ planned bonfire will dampen the ire of Afghans as well as Muslims all over the world, who take insults to their religion quite seriously. Eid will most likely begin on Friday — it depends, apparently, on the moon — and continue for four days. Families come together, eat vast quantities of cake and cookies and bask in the goodwill marking the end of the Ramadan fast. The season is not conducive to violence.

But I remember all too well the riots that followed the publication of the Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad. While I am an ardent believer in freedom of the press, I could sympathize with the Scandinavian diplomats who were furious when a Norwegian paper reprinted the offending drawings. They were, after all, the ones sitting in the embassy when demonstrators came with rocks and Molotov cocktails to burn them out.

Jones’ justification for the act is simple. The blog on his website, “Ten Reasons to Burn the Koran,” sums it up nicely.

These include the fact that Muslims do not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Perhaps he should throw a few Torahs on the blaze.

The list also tells us that the Quran was “not recorded in heaven.” I’m sure there are plenty of Biblical scholars who could give Jones a healthy debate on the Christian Book’s divine origin.

And then there's my personal favorite: “Deep in the Islamic teaching and culture is the irrational fear and loathing of the West.”

For irrational fear and loathing, the good pastor need look no further than a mirror.

I consider myself a civil libertarian; I would never dream of trying to curtail any of the freedoms that make America unique. But during the past month I have been feverishly besieging my U.S. lawyer friends with demands that someone, somehow find a way to stop Jones and his small but potentially deadly group of followers.

“Isn’t hate speech banned in our country?” I wail, only to be told that, in fact, the United States is not Canada. If Nazis and the KKK can hold rallies, then Jones has the right to sell T-shirts and coffee mugs adorned with his favorite saying, “Islam is of the Devil.”

One can only prohibit hate speech if there is good reason to believe it will result in immediate, physical danger.

The danger posed by Jones and his “church” in the United States is quite small. Many religious leaders have condemned him, and I would hope that every normal American would be disgusted by his act as well as the unhealthy ethos surrounding the Dove World Outreach Center. Taliban websites can’t hold a candle to Jones when it comes to twisted logic, distorted facts and fevered appeals to the basest of human emotions. A look at the group’s Facebook page leaves one in dire need of a shower.

But in the supercharged atmosphere in Afghanistan today, the Quran-burning is, no pun intended, a lighted match in a barrel of oil.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, who says any such action this Saturday could “endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort.”

But the greatest danger will probably be to Afghans rather than to foreigners. The 15 people killed in the rioting over a previous incident involving reported desecration of the Quran by U.S. soldiers were rioters themselves. It is unlikely that mobs will set out to tear Americans limb from limb, although anything could happen.

But just when U.S. policy has officially set out to persuade Afghans that we are on their side, a stunt like this could do immeasurable harm.

“It will transform something fundamental in Afghans’ perceptions of the West,” said a close friend, an Afghan, who asked that I not use his name. “Afghans have viewed America as the victim of 9/11. But after this, and the violence that is sure to follow, Afghans will see relations with the West, and the United States in particular, as a clash of cultures, the West against Islam. And they will mark Sept. 11, THIS Sept. 11, as the day that it all changed.”

It is no use arguing that Jones represents a tiny group, not America as a whole. Coming on the heels of the "Ground Zero mosque" debate, it will be all but impossible to persuade Afghans that the United States does not harbor, well, “an irrational fear and loathing” of Islam. Not a great advert for a hearts and minds campaign, is it?

I have read that the Gainesville Fire Department has denied Jones a permit for his pyrotechnic display. That is a start, at least, but Jones lost no time in stating that he would go ahead anyway. It may be some small consolation to know that he could be fined, or even spend a night in jail, for helping to set off a major confrontation with the Islamic world.

I am sorry that I cannot echo Voltaire, who famously said to the revolutionary Rousseau: “I do not agree with a word you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”

I do not agree with Jones; and despite my firm commitment to the First Amendment, I resent that it is my Afghan friends, as well as those of us who have chosen to live and work in countries like Afghanistan, who may have to suffer for his right to freedom of expression.