|Terry Jones, a previously unknown Florida pastor, has captured the international media limelight [AFP]
Burning the Quran, despite the impression one might have after the hyperventilating media coverage of pastor Terry Jones’ planned Saturday conflagration, is not a novel practice.
Immolation as a political statement is a practice with a long, storied and mostly depressing history dating to antiquity, when Romans burned early Christian martyrs.
The practice of burning books, including the Quran, marked a less fatal but arguably just as dangerous turn in the practice, with its threat of erasing knowledge itself and its accompanying violence and death.
According to the early Persian Muslim scholar al-Bukhari, writing in the 800s, the caliph Uthman ordered the burning of Quran editions that differed from those “perfect copies” he had ordered composed.
More recently, as of the 1980s, minority Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan have been arrested and charged under blasphemy laws for burning copies of the Quran.
Just over nine years ago, alleged Quran burning in India to protest against the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan provoked counter-riots and protests.
Last Autumn, Afghans protested after a rumour spread – and subsequently blew up in the media – that US soldiers had burned copies of the Quran in the province of Wardak after a tank struck an improvised explosive device.
So how, all of a sudden, has a pastor with only a few dozens followers in central Florida managed to attract the world’s cameras and notepads to his threat to burn Qurans?
Part of the answer lies in the time of year. The Western media is currently wallowing in the doldrums of late summer, a period of governmental inactivity known to some as “silly season”.
It’s a period when stories that otherwise might fall low on an editor’s priorities list – think shark attacks – suddenly become a way to fill the news void.
An apparently renegade southern American preacher with a plan tailor-made to infuriate Muslims is a perfect silly-season affair.
And so the media has played its role and thereby, in the eyes of some, given legs to an otherwise fairly unremarkable story, prompting protests on the other side of the world, including Afghanistan, where one person has reportedly died as a result.
James Poniewozik, writing for Time magazine, has noted a couple reasons for the head-over-heels media coverage of the erstwhile Quran burners.
For one, “tiny groups of fringe idiots” often get coverage, presumably because the vast majority of website readers and television watchers find them strange and different, like aliens or sea creatures, both of which also attract a lot of viewers.
And the Florida saga also happens to coincide with many Americans’ newfound “Islamophobia” and concern over the inaccurately named “Ground Zero mosque” – a community centre called Park51 that features a prayer room and was set to be built in the company of strip clubs, blocks from the site of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
To care or not to care
Some writers, such as Slate’s David Weigel, would rather reporters ignore Jones and his small group of followers. “Ignore This Idiot” is the title of Weigel’s blog post on the controversy.
“[Jones] gets to hold the country, or at least the part of the country that pays attention to such news, hostage, with reporters getting the secretary of state and our general in Afghanistan on the record to condemn this nobody,” Weigel wrote.
“Instead of dying in obscurity, he’ll die a has-been. Good work.”
Indeed, the Associated Press and Fox News have both stated they plan to ignore the event, if it happens.
ABC News reporter Chris Cuomo, the Lost Remote blog noted, wrote on Twitter that the “media gave life to this florida burning … and that was reckless”.
Then again, the Quran-burning threat has also attracted the attention of world politicians and military brass ranging from Barack Obama, the US president, to Hamid Karzai, his Afghan counterpart.
A Facebook page in support of the burning had more than 16,000 fans by Friday and was on the increase, while fans of opponents’ pages numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
Both sides exchanged angry and often bigoted online broadsides.
“This is, unfortunately, one of those cases in which, by having become news, the story is now making legitimate news,” Poniewozik wrote.
Memo to Petraeus
So why, exactly, does the US president feel the need to make a pre-emptive media strike, in an effort of damage control, ahead of a Quran bonfire that may not even happen, encouraged and arranged by a man with a verifiably tiny following, who almost nobody had heard about a month ago?
In part, it’s because very few people are willing to tolerate Jones’ brand of intolerance in society, and coming out against it sends that message.
But there are acts of intolerance every day, so what makes this one special?
As Poniewozik wrote, “Islamophobia” is, in a sense, a hot topic these days, with Obama travelling to Cairo to use one of the first major speeches of his term to try to smooth things over with the Islamic world.
But part of the answer, some argue, is that acts that have been perceived by Muslims as insults against Islam have provoked violent responses in the past, including the protests that came after the suspected Quran burning in Wardak and those in response to the cartoons of Muhammad drawn by a Danish artist in 2005.
After all, it was Obama himself who rang an alarm bell this time, telling reporters: “I just want [Jones] to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan”.
The well-followed and conservative Powerline blog in the US, while it made its stance against the Quran burning clear, also said that “what gives rise to this dilemma, of course, is the fanaticism of radical Muslims, who have, indeed, responded violently to real or perceived slights to their religion”.
“Perversely, the crazier radical Muslims behave, the more it benefits them,” John Hinderaker, a lawyer and freelance writer, argued in his post on the blog.
“Today it is burning Korans, but the broader objective is to outlaw, de facto, any criticism of Islam,” he said.
Conservative writer Michelle Malkin, echoing a three-year-old article by the less-conservative but never uncontroversial Christopher Hitchens, bemoaned “the eternal flame of Muslim outrage” on her website on Friday.
“When everything from sneakers to stuffed animals to comics to frescos to beauty queens to fast-food packaging to undies serves as dry tinder for Allah’s avengers, it’s a grand farce to feign concern about the recruitment effect of a few burnt Korans in the hands of a two-bit attention-seeker in Florida,” she wrote.
It’s true that many countries in the Middle East and Central and South Asia do officially run their legal system, at least in part, according to sharia law, with offences such as blasphemy and defacing the Quran carrying heavy penalties, including life in prison.
But Muslim grievances are real, too, as Roger Simon, a longstanding US political writer, noted in a column for Politico on Friday , following remarks by David Petraeus, the top US commander in Afghanistan.
Petraeus said that the military was concerned about “extremists” using images of a Quran burning to incite violence, the way they “used images from Abu Ghraib,” the Iraqi prison where US guards abused and tortured prisoners.
Simon wrote: “Memo to Gen Petraeus: The best way to avoid the use of images from Abu Ghraib is not to have prisons like Abu Ghraib in which US soldiers committed unspeakable acts. The issue is not the images; it is the acts”.