A church in Florida may soon become the catalyst for another outbreak of worldwide violence. Before they go ahead with their planned “Burn a Qur’an” event on 11 September, they would do well to remember the controversy and bloodshed caused by the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.
The 50-strong Dove World Outreach Centre in Gainesville, Florida, plans to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks by burning copies of the Qur’an. “On 9/11/2010 we are burning Korans to raise awareness and [sic] warn”, the statement on the church’s website reads. “In a sense it is neither an act of love nor of hate. We see, as we state in the Ten Reasons below, that Islam is a danger. We are using this act to warn about the teaching and ideology of Islam, which we do hate as it is hateful. We do not hate any people, however. We love, as God loves, all the people in the world and we want them to come to a knowledge of the truth. To warn of danger and harm is a loving act. God is love and truth. If you know the truth it can set you free. The world is in bondage to the massive grip of the lies of Islam.”
The blog post on the website goes on to list 10 reasons why the church will be burning the Qur’an, such as “the Koran does not have an eternal origin. It is not recorded in heaven.” We’ll spare you the pain of having to wade through a mountain of “reasons” by not reproducing the list here.
Photo: Members of the Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia shout "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) during a protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Jakarta September 4, 2010. Hundreds of members from the Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia condemned a Florida church plans to hold a "Koran-burning" on September 11, which this year coincides with Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. REUTERS/Supri
Asked whether he wasn’t concerned about the controversy the event would cause, the DWOC pastor and part-time used-furniture salesman Terry Jones said it would be tragic if anyone were to lose their lives as a result of the planned Qur’an burnings. "We realize this action would indeed offend the Muslims,” he told reporters. “I am offended when they burn the flag. I am offended when they burn the Bible. But we feel that the message that we are trying to send is much more important than people being offended.”
Watch: Pastor Terry Jones announces “Burn a Koran Day” in a hate-filled tirade.
In America, the planned event may be dismissed as the actions of an intolerant and bigoted buffoon, but in the Islamic world, the action is being taken very seriously indeed. When the news of the planned “Burn a Qur’an” day reached Kabul and Jakarta, hundreds protesters took to the streets. Many of the demonstrators seem to believe that the church’s stance is that of President Barack Obama and the US. “Death to America” was the cry of the demonstrators Afghanistan.
The US Embassy in Kabul blasted the event, calling it contrary to US government policy. “Americans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds reject the offensive initiative by this small group in Florida. A great number of American voices are protesting the hurtful statements made by this organisation," the embassy’s statement read.
General David Petraeus, the US Commander in Afghanistan was even more emphatic in his rejection of the church’s actions. He said their plans could have serious security repercussions for the troops stationed in Afghanistan. Petraeus said the burning of Qur’ans was precisely the type of image the Taliban uses to stoke hatred. “Even the rumour that it might take place has sparked demonstrations such as the one that took place in Kabul yesterday. Were the actual burning to take place, the safety of our soldiers and civilians would be put in jeopardy and accomplishment of the mission would be made more difficult.”
Photo: Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard poses in Aarhus in this September 2006 file photo. His satirical drawing of the Prophet Mohammad has changed his life, but Westergaard has no regrets, despite the exposure of a plot to kill him. REUTERS/Preben Hupfeld
The fears of Petraeus and the Kabul embassy are not unfounded. On 30 September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran an article entitled “The many faces of Muhammad”, containing 12 cartoons, some of which depicted the prophet Muhammad. The article was part of an ongoing debate in Denmark over the sensibilities of Islam and secular society. Two weeks after the publication of the cartoons, an estimated 5,000 people held a peaceful demonstration outside the Jyllands offices, but two of the cartoonists who had drawn the images were forced underground by death threats. In February 2006, the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were torched, though no one was injured. There were demonstrations and riots across the world, and a reported 139 people were killed in different countries, mainly by police firing on the crowds. There were also major diplomatic ramifications, as several Islamic nations shut their embassies in Denmark, or demanded apologies from the Danish government. Militants were blamed for using the controversy to stoke anti-West sentiments in the Middle East and other Islamic regions.
In 2006 and 2007, several incidents of radical Islamists attempting to assassinate cartoonists and the editors who reprinted the cartoons were reported across Europe. Police also discovered undetonated bombs in trains in the German cities of Dortmund and Koblenz. The students who were arrested for the attempted terrorist attacks said that they had planted the bombs in retaliation against the cartoons, which they saw as an attack by the West on Islam. Many of the suspects in these incidents were in one way or another linked to two Danish imams who had toured the Middle East and published a paper denouncing the cartoons.
Photo: Pakistani Muslims beat an effigy of a Danish cartoonist during a rally in Karachi February 24, 2006. Passban, a social organisation, held the rally to protest against the publication of cartoons and caricatures depicting the Prophet Mohammad in European newspapers. REUTERS/Zahid Hussein
The incident in Florida could spark a similar worldwide protest, which could easily turn violent. What makes the likelihood of violence even more acute is the timing of different religious observances, as well as the anniversary of 9/11, all of which happen at around the same period. The Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah falls on 8 September this year. The Eid ul-Fitr holiday observed by the followers of Islam, which marks the end of Ramadan, is expected to fall on 9 or 10 September. The Islamic holiday has already caused consternation in the US as it falls around the time of the memorial of the 9/11 attacks, and many scholars felt that people would misinterpret the holiday as a celebration of the atrocities that were committed on that day in the name of Islam. Although, those who had expressed concern had done so as a result of the Cordoba House controversy, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque”, this new development goes beyond mere misunderstanding, and constitutes direct provocation. Tensions are higher than usual as a result of this unusual mix of events, and the planned incident in Florida may be the spark that detonates the powder keg around the world.
However, sanity may yet prevail, in Florida at least. The National Association of Evangelicals has joined Muslim groups in the US in calling for the Dove World Outreach Centre to cancel the Qur’an burning event. Several religious organisations of all creeds plan to hold a “Gathering of Peace, Understanding and Hope” on the night before “Burn the Qur’an Day”.
Officials in Gainesville have also denied the church permission to hold the event, saying it contravenes fire safety regulations. If Jones and his congregation go ahead with their plans, they will not only offend a major world religion and thereby put the security of many people in jeopardy, they will also be liable for a fine. DM