Are you in the mood to stir up some international conflict? Take a Qur’an, a lighter and an unhealthy amount of petrol before adding to the mix a dose of ignorance and unrequited hatred for a people one does not understand. The rest could so easily have been a regrettable episode of history; fortunately Pastor Terry Jones, 58, received a “sign from God” and subsequently cancelled his plans to burn 200 copies of the Islamic Holy Book on the anniversary of 9/11. I can only laud the fact that Jones and his 50-strong church in Florida will be landed with the security bill of 200,000 despite the event not going ahead – perhaps Jones will look for a sign from God a little quicker next time.
The “will he/won’t he?” question regarding his proposed antics has dominated many a pub, café, internet forum and newspaper. It all began with a Tweet claiming Islam to be analogous with fascism, which snowballed until Jones became a figure of quite remarkable notoriety. This is understandable when one reads his mission statement: “Our Mission is to bring to awareness to the dangers of Islam and that the Koran is leading people to hell. Eternal fire is the only destination the Koran can lead people to so we want to put the Koran in it’s place – the fire!” (Please note that the grammatical slip on “it’s” is a Jones original. Charismatic preachers, eh?) This statement forms the very heart of his original intention to burn the Qur’an.
International outcry ensued. Media from all over the globe were interested in this man who would throw fuel upon the intense relations between East and West, between Islam and Christianity. Indeed, this manifestation of religious extremism and islamophobia is not simply a matter of inter-faith relations, but of politics on the world stage. President Obama himself appealed to Jones to listen to the “better angels” of his nature, saying that the incident would only lead to a surge of hatred towards American troops fighting abroad; one struggles to think of an example of islamophobia that ever did lead to something positive.
Imagine the political landscape today had George Bush listened to the “better angels” of his nature, in the wake of 9/11. Nabil Shaath, ex-Palestinian foreign minister, said: “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I am driven with a mission from God.’ God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did.” On the Islamic threat, Bush said, “We’re facing a radical ideology with unalterable objectives: to enslave whole nations and intimidate the world.” I wonder how many journalists have penned the same statement to Pastor Jones and Christianity this past month.
Pragmatically, the stunt was a joke. No increase in the awareness of the supposed dangers of Islam was ever going to happen, instead only an increase in the perception of Christianity as an intolerant and ignorant religion. It would serve only as a “recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda”, as rightly claimed by Obama. In order to face the “problem” of Islam, surely understanding should be sought. I personally see the Twilight saga as something verging on the satanic (for literary rather than theological reasons!), but by burning a couple of hundred copies I would merely expel myself from any reasonable literary discussion.
Far from being goaded into extremism or anger we can let Jones’ stunt prompt us to remember and focus upon the more intelligent history of America. Ted Widmer writes, “And to advance that vision to the fullest, they [the founders – America’s forefathers] read the Koran, and studied Islam with a calm intelligence that today’s over-hyped Americans can only begin to imagine.”
Another poignant example is in Corporal Sarah Bryant, 26, who was killed in Afghanistan two years ago. Her father, Des Feely, said, “Sarah went to the trouble of buying a copy and reading it while she was out there. Instead of burning it and causing more distrust and hatred, she read it to gain some understanding.” It is exactly this sort of will to understand in a peaceful and pragmatic manner that is so utterly lacking in Jones and all those that he has inspired.
Pastor Terry Jones is a rather poisonous individual, who has only himself to blame for the condemnation he now faces; or perhaps it was notoriety on this scale that he desired in the first place. Before moving to Florida he was a missionary in Germany, setting up a church in Cologne in 1982, promising to show his followers “the riches of the kingdom of heaven”.
However, 26 years later, he left disgraced, accused of “running a sect-like community with an iron fist, forcing members to give him a percentage of their earnings, making them work for little or no money and causing the breakup of families and friendships” by Andrew Schäfer, an official sect monitor for the protestant church in Germany’s Rhine region. Schäfer stressed his “enormous manipulative potential,” and claimed that, “he has clearly not been able to cope with the immense loss of his power and significance.”
Jones saw the numbers of his Cologne church surge to over 1000, and since his fall from grace they have plummeted down to 60. There is no doubting this American preacher’s charisma, yet his promises of a community of restoration and hope were hollow, replaced by something very un-Christian; Spiritual abuse as well as economic and psychological dependence, were run of the mill. He forced members of his congregation to work at a charity shop he set up for next to no wage, working long hours. Repeatedly he drilled a fear of Islamic attacks into those at the church, who “lived in real fear that we really would be attacked by Muslims during the religious services,” said Thomas Muller, adding, “you have to say that this man had an exaggerated need to be admired, which is probably why he came up with this idea [to burn the Qur’ans].” Furthermore, he is also guilty of faking a title of “Doctor of Theology”, for which he was fined.
We are left in little doubt that Jones is certainly not a model missionary. But what scares me is that, in spite of the obvious dangers of following this path, this spectacle has served to inspire people to do what Jones thankfully called off. Six men in Gateshead, England, posted a video of themselves burning a Qur’an, calling themselves “English Nationalists”. The reason they gave for the stunt was that, “there seems to be one law for them and one law for us. They can burn a Union Flag and the Stars and Stripes, but we get arrested for burning a few sheets of paper.”
Terry Jones’ model involved setting light to a copy of the Qur’an, thus destroying the sacred text of Islam, in the name of God. This is something done (supposedly) in the name of a God, on a religious platform, which has huge political and religious ramifications. These “English Nationalists”, however, are doing something in the name of their own concerns, on a religious platform, which also has huge political and religious ramifications. The fact that these men have since been arrested by authorities highlights again how sensitive this religious stage is. We are reminded of the potentially destructive force that attacks on what a religion deems sacred can unleash. We do not live in a world where one looks at the motivation of an action, but more at what the action is itself. It does not matter if Terry Jones believed he was acting in the name of God, the name of notoriety, or, as in the case of the men from Gateshead, the name of politics, the protests would continue unabated.
It is all too easy to distance ourselves from Pastor Jones. But a rather sobering thought is if we remind ourselves of his mission statement: “Our Mission is to bring to awareness to the dangers of Islam and that the Koran is leading people to hell.” I asked a number of Christians whether or not they agreed with the statement, and received only two different answers: “yes” or a rather awkward “I’ve not quite made my mind up about that yet”.
World leaders have condemned a man’s plan of exhibiting this belief in a destructive and venomous manner. Good. We live in a religiously tolerant society, the example of Terry Jones can help us to recognise the difference between sincere leaders of religion and those who are power-hungry extremists. Even his peers saw that he “didn’t put biblical values and Christianity at the forefront, rather his own person” (Stephan Baar, deputy leader at Cologne).