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Terry Jones' America is a Dangerous Place to Be

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SEATTLE, April 3 -- There are so many reasons to feel alarmed, worried and/or confused at the moment -- Japan, Libya, Obama, take your pick -- that it seems almost quaint, "so last year," to single out the Quran-burning pastor in Florida. But his latest antic, and the resulting deaths of innocent people in Afghanistan, leaves me feeling angry and disgusted. When will we in America begin taking responsibility for our own extremists?

As the riots in Afghanistan show starkly, this is a matter of life and death. By the time you read this, the two days of riots I'm referring to might have swollen into a major crisis -- or they might have been subsumed and forgotten in the din and onrush of mayhem in Libya and Syria, radiation in Japan or whatever's next. Either way, the people who died in them will remain just as dead. And it will remain the fault of Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Fla.

It would be nice if we could ignore Jones and his ilk, but we can't afford to. "The local strategy of everybody was to ignore this," the Rev. Lawrence D. Reimer, pastor of the United Church of Gainesville, told the New York Times. "It's just a horrible tragedy that this act triggered the deaths of more innocent people." It's understandable that well-meaning Gainesvillians would be embarrassed, and a tactic of declining to dignify Jones's stunt with attention is defensible. But some of the comments responding to my article "Is America Any Different from Pakistan?" -- published in January, just after the killing of Salmaan Taseer in Islamabad and the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson -- are telling. One reader wrote (anonymously of course):

Yawn yet another typical leftie more than willing to jump on the bandwagon of blaming the right, America, and any other group he/she opposes for the actions of a mentally insane person. Jared Loughner appears to have been a psychotic, I suspect a schizophrenic. Please wait for the facts instead [of] falling into your own biases.

It's plausible to dismiss Loughner and Jones as nuts, or me as "yet another typical leftie," but I don't buy it. Ever since Ronald Reagan's henchmen coined the phrase "plausible deniability," that's become our national motto. Contrast the anonymous comment with this, from reader Arif Humayun:

Right-wing extremists are made of the same stuff; geography does not matter. This breed in the US is no different from that in Pakistan or the one in India. They exploit the religious sentiments for votes and refuse to take responsibility when their rhetoric causes extreme reactions like the killings in Tucson AZ or the murder of Governor Taseer in Pakistan or the Gujarat riots in India.

And this, from Tess Abidi:

The American rightwingers deny the shooting of a liberal politician had anything to do with their hate speech, and denounce anyone who dares even remotely suggest otherwise. The Pakistani rightwingers proudly acknowledge - nay, take credit for - their speeches that led to the shooting. Admit there is a difference. But if things stay as is, it wouldn't take much for the Americans to become more and more like Pakistanis. It doesn't take much, you know. I left Pakistan during the 90's. It's a very different country now. Didn't take that long.

Arif and Tess both are Americans who are Muslim and of Pakistani origin. In our national and international conversation, it's important for their voices to be heard. Here's another voice I'd like you to hear -- my friend Todd Shea:

Right now many people's reality is rooted in misconceptions on all sides, and that's a dangerous place to be. And somebody somewhere has to take initiative in presenting information that people need to have in order to have a better understanding. In this case, educating Americans about the reality on the ground in Pakistan, the history that they don't understand, our culpability, and our need to do something about it.

Huh? Our culpability? Here's part of what Todd means:

If U.S. leaders had treated them as important in a human way [after our successful proxy war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s], then society in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be far further along today, because we would have helped them avoid all the things that are happening now. If you remember, at the time, we were loved. Both countries were in such a state of need, and then we just left. 'We got rid of our big enemy, let's get outta here,' and boy, wasn't that a strategic error.

Contrast Todd's emphasis on historical context and self-examination with Pastor Terry Jones's excuse for putting the Quran "on trial" and then burning it: "It's time to hold Islam accountable."

Is it also time to hold America, and Americans, accountable? It had better be. Accountability begins at home. It's fine, and important, for people to write and read edifying primers like Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's recent Washington Post op-ed "Five Myths about Muslims in America." But that's not enough. As I told a right-wing friend of mine recently in a different context, I'm ready to fight for the America that I want to live in. More of us need to find the courage and strength of character that my fellow Wisconsinites have been showing lately, or we'll end up living in Terry Jones' America. And that's a dangerous place to be.

ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010). He is currently writing Bearing the Bruise: A Lifetime of Learning from Haiti, to published in fall 2011, and collaborating with filmmaker Naeem Randhawa on a collection of stories by and about Muslims living in America. Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans

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