About a month ago, before there was any conversation in the American news media about the insignificant Florida pastor, Terry Jones, and his plan to burn around 200 copies of the Qur'an on September 11, the story was a hot topic of discussion on a number of Jihadi websites. The posters knew about the plan, and they were brainstorming about how they could use it as a tool to recruit fighters and terrorists against the United States. The only reason that the posters believed the idea had so much potential was because of their deeply held perception about Muslims and their inability to handle insults to their religion. It was an extremely condescending and patronizing view of Muslims and a hugely insulting view of their intelligence and rationality.
But this is where the real issue lies: the U.S. government and majority of the American people seem to agree with that view of Muslims. In an astonishing act of lending importance to the story, General Petraeus, the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan injected himself into the debate, telling NBC Nightly News that "the images from the burning of a Quran... would be used by those who wish us ill, to incite violence and to enflame public opinion against us and against our mission here in Afghanistan, as well as our missions undoubtedly around the world." Over the past few days, the list of critics has grown to include the Vatican, Angelina Jolie, Sarah Palin, Franklin Graham and the Vatican. And on Wednesday, President Obama himself commented on Pastor Jones' plans, saying "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" and it could become "a recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda."
As of the time of this writing, the pastor has announced his intention to cancel the burning of the Qoran after receiving a call from a no less significant figure than the Secretary of Defense of the United States, Bob Gates.
Those who have been condemning the pastor may take this news as a cause to celebrate. We may take pride in thinking we are so tolerant and respectful of Muslims. But why is it that a insignificant pastor who has no more than a few dozen followers and has to sell furniture on eBay for a living can so quickly capture the world's attention, leading the president of Pakistan to predict in a statement last Thursday that the pastor's plan to burn the Qoran can "cause irreparable damage to interfaith harmony and also to world peace"?
The answer is that the claim of tolerance toward Islam is just a cover for many who have spoken out against the Quran burning plans. The reality is Americans and non-Muslims around the world are deeply terrified of Islam and Muslims. We know the story of Salman Rushdie, whose fourth novel, The Satanic Verses earned him lots of love on February 14, 1989, from the leader of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the form of a fatwa requiring Rushidie's execution. We have heard the story of the Danish cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, whose life was changed when he was asked in 2005 by his newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, to paint Prophet Mohammad "as you see him," and he did. Following a wave of violent protests by thousands of Muslims around the world and threats against his life, he had to go on the run for months, only to find himself four years later in his own bathroom calling the police as an axe and knife wielding 28-year-old Somali man who had broken into his house battered the door, screaming, "We will get our revenge!" And we know the story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali feminist activist who had to go into hiding after she wrote the script and provided the voice-over for Submission, a film that criticized the treatment of women in Islamic society. The producer of the film, Theo van Gogh was assassinated in 2004 by Mohammad Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim.
Granted, Pastor Jones is an unimportant figure who is using this act to draw the spotlight to himself. But what does the fact that he succeeded say about us? For reasons that one could debate are justified or unjustified, non-Muslims around the world have seen what Muslim extremists can do and have done in the name of Islam so often that that they have had their faith in the rationality and belief in the humanity of the Muslims shaken to the core. It is for the same reason that in a city as progressive and tolerant to various views as New York City, 58% of the population opposes the building of the mosque near ground zero. We may be quick to condemn extremism while embracing "moderates," and it may be the politically correct thing to say that Islam is the "religion of peace," but there is a deep fear of Islam -- all of Islam and its followers, not just the extremist elements -- among what one can comfortably estimate as the majority of Americans.
Why can't we have enough faith in the ability of mainstream Muslims to distinguish between the government of the United States and idiotic acts of an irrelevant American pastor? If they cannot tell the difference between the two, then how could they be intelligent enough to know the event never took place if it doesn't take place but someone tells them it did and shows them Photoshopped picture of the pastor with a big fire in front of him? Why is it so important to prevent the actual burning ceremony from taking place as to require the personal attention of the President of the United States?
Regardless of how one feels about Islam or religion in general, the pastor's plan to burn the Quran is an offensive act, and it is natural for those who support categorical religious tolerance to speak up. But the fact that some who speak up do so with such vigor, and that a planned offensive act of a person of absolutely no importance gets the attention of media and people at the highest levels of governments and institutions around the world shows one thing: we have not only grown used to Muslims' deep and often irrational sensitivities when it comes to criticizing their religion, but we have become fearful enablers of those sensitivities. We have decided to tolerate Muslims' intolerance of criticism of Islam and non-Muslims' freedom to express themselves on matters of their choosing, including Islam.
When one listens to the words of Gen. Petraeus or President Obama, what is desperately missing is a clear message that just as we condemn acts of intolerance such as those of Mr. Jones, these acts do not justify acts of violence. We have got to stop treating Muslims like children, psychopaths and barbarics with no ability to reason or control their emotions. While religious tolerance is important, instead of constantly being on a defensive posture when talking to Muslims, we have to couple our condemnation of intolerant acts with the clear and unequivocal message that should such offensive acts take place, it is never accepted to use them as a justification to engage in violence of any kind against anyone, because there is one thing we will never tolerate, and that's intolerance itself.