This past Saturday marked the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 hijacking attacks – and the end of a week-long ordeal surrounding a Florida pastor’s proposed ‘Burn-a-Koran Day.’
Rev. Terry Jones had been planning the event since July 30. As the day of the Koran-burning approached, Jones, the leader of a 30-member congregation in Gainesville, Fla., attracted greater publicity and more desperate pleas from citizens and government officials – including Gen. David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – to cancel the burning.
Many feared that moving forward with the event would endanger U.S. soldiers in the Middle East, fuel anti-American sentiments and encourage recruitment in terrorist cells. Jones initially rejected the pleas, but finally cancelled the event under pressure from local, national and international communities.
According to CNN, when asked about the purpose of the event, Jones called it “neither an act of love nor of hate” but rather a warning against what he perceives to be Islamic threats. The Associated Press reported Jones citing a “belief that the Koran is evil because it espouses something other than biblical truth and incites radical, violent behavior among Muslims.”
While Jones was legally entitled to conduct the event under his First-Amendment rights to free speech, the event would likely have accomplished little, leaving a few books singed and a few million people outraged.
More than that, it simply would have disrespected the millions of Muslims who practice Islam peacefully, many of whom live in the U.S. Jones’ plans targeted an Islam that is violent, radical and evil – an Islam practiced by only a small percentage of its followers.
Ironically, Jones’ actions misrepresented Christianity in much the same way, misconstruing it as a religion of intolerance, retaliation and contempt. This, too, is a Christianity few would endorse.
But perhaps the main problem with responding to pressing issues and religious debates in Jones-esque fashion is that it simply does not accomplish anything worthwhile. It may attract publicity and get people talking, Jones certainly did, but it will ultimately polarize the issue and anger opposing sides.
Whether Islam or Christianity is or isn’t the answer is not the issue in this case; that’s an important topic for extended discussion and theological debate. Whether books considered holy are burned or not also isn’t the issue – that’s just disrespectful and unnecessary on either side.
As they reflect a populace that is wrestling with the tensions between Islam and Christianity, last week’s events should raise more pertinent questions about the nature of inter-faith interactions, international relations and religious identities. With the anniversary of Sept. 11, and especially with the shifting, unsettled dynamics in the Middle East and around the world, these are crucial topics to consider.
They also raise very difficult, complex questions about how to best engage other groups of people who differ from us, be it ideologically, religiously or otherwise. Now is a crucial time to seek creative, constructive responses that will encourage dialogue, at the very least, if not peace and reconciliation as well. And as we learned last week, burning holy books just isn’t a good place to start.