09/08/2010 01:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Burning the Quran, Endangering America

As you may know, a Florida church is planning to burn copies of the Quran on 9/11. It claims that the burning will be "neither an act of love nor of hate," but it is clearly the latter. Pastor Terry Jones has called Islam "of the devil," "a deceptive religion" and "a violent religion" that is "causing billions of people to go to hell."

This is despicable bigotry, of course, and the consequences could be bloody:

The U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Monday criticized a Florida church's plan to burn copies of the Quran on September 11, warning the demonstration "could cause significant problems" for American troops overseas.

"It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan," Gen. David Petraeus said in a statement issued Monday.

I think that's right. Here's a church that no doubt considers itself patriotic, in that right-wing way that is really more nativist jingoism than patriotism, potentially putting American troops in harm's way as a direct result of its anti-Muslim bigotry. (For more on Petraeus's remarks, see Fred Kaplan at Slate.)

But it isn't just Gainesville's Dove World Outreach Center that's doing it. There is widespread anti-Muslim sentiment on the right, including among mainstream conservatives and throughout the Republican Party, and much of it, I think, adds to the existing anti-American sentiment among America's enemies, providing them with a rallying cry for action and support. More, I think, it reinforces the less intense and often non-violent anti-American sentiment within the Muslim community generally, pushing some towards violence and others towards skepticism of America's intentions at the very least. Anti-Muslim sentiment is undermining efforts of engagement with the Muslim world, weakening America's credibility around the world and threatening what limited advances America has made in building meaningful relationships with Muslim countries and reaching out to Muslims generally.

And yet it continues. There are those, for example, who call Obama a Muslim, implying that there is nothing worse than being a Muslim, that being a Muslim is being anti-American, with Islam and America forever at odds with one another. And there are those, like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, among so many others on the right, attacking the planned Muslim community center near Ground Zero, Park51, implying that being a Muslim is essentially the same as being a terrorist, that the Muslims who would go to Park51 are essentially the same as those Muslims who flew planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11. Why else, in their view, would it be disrespectful to have a Muslim community center near Ground Zero?

If they even understand this, conservatives don't seem to care. And why would they? Many of them adhere to a radical right-wing worldview that pits America (and fundamentalist American Christianity) against Islam in a clash of civilizations to the death. Their ideology rests to a great extent on bigotry. And their electoral success relies on feeding the culture of fear and loathing at home, scaring Americans into being terrified of their defined Other (Muslims, gays, socialists, etc.).

But there are consequences. And like a boomerang, the hatred that goes out will come right back, a cycle that keeps feeding on itself, and growing, allowing extremists there and here to ratchet up the attacks.

It must be stopped, but how, with churches burning the Qur'an, conservatism moving ever further to the right, and the Republican Party descending ever further into madness? There is so much more to America than this right-wing and evangelical Christian bigotry, so much goodness and decency in the American soul, but it is that bigotry that gets the attention, and that gets projected, and perhaps Muslims and others around the world should be excused, short of responding with violence, for thinking that these bigots speak for America.


"A Florida pastor told CNN on Tuesday that while his congregation still plans to burn Qurans to protest the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the church is 'weighing' its intentions." What exactly does that mean? "We have firmly made up our mind, but at the same time, we are definitely praying about it," said Pastor and Chief Bigot Terry Jones.

The church is apparently "taking seriously" (CNN's words) General Petraeus's warning, but Jones, refusing to back down, turned it back on Petraeus: "The general needs to point his finger to radical Islam and tell them to shut up, tell them to stop, tell them that we will not bow our knees to them." And it looks like the burning will be a go: "We are burning the book. We are not killing someone. We are not murdering people."

No, but as Petraeus said, the burning could lead directly to more killing. And, what's more, while Jones points to "radical Islam," the Qur'an is the holy text not just for this small subset of Muslims but for all Muslims. Jones can try to rationalize all he wants. This is hatred pure and simple.

Free expression is a deeply American right, but Americans should be outraged by this deeply anti-American expression of hatred. The rest of the world will certainly be watching, and taking notes.

(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)