by Joyce Marcel
September 16, 2010
BRADENTON, Fla., Sept. 10, 10:00 P.M. ET -- The great irony of the Gainesville Koran-burning saga is that at the end, imams were calling the shots and other Islamic clergy were at the microphones on his lawn, calling their host an extremist on Friday.
Between Wednesday and Friday, two of those clergy spoke for the Rev. Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center (which, in the end, did reach the world) as he stood nearby, and by Friday Jones' son was forced to commandeer the microphone and then bear the brunt of hard, shouted questions as his father cooled his heels inside the church.
By contrast, the Islamic clergy, who had promised and then apparently unpromised to move the mosque, moved as far away from Jones as they could. The Orlando imam who was to accompany him to New York was suddenly unavailable; the imam with whom Jones was supposed to meet in New York about moving the mosque had no interest in seeing him.
And Jones, probably intimidated at last by two SUVs full of FBI agents making an unannounced visit and a call from the Secretary of Defense urging him to give up his plans, kept insisting he would meet with mosque officials in New York long after they had publicly declined to do so. Jones found himself trying to wiggle out of his conundrum; he was lucky he had a son to stand at the bundled microphones and take the host of angry questions for him.
The son, Luke, was a chip off the old block; he did say that there would be no Koran burning, but hinted at something else that would happen Saturday evening, and the media desperately tried and failed to smoke it out of him. "If we wanted the media to know what we are planning, we would tell you," he said.
There was only one way for the Rev. Terry Jones to achieve his personal destiny, and that was to burn the holy books of Islam that were piled atop a table inside his church office. Instead, thankfully, he balked as the enormous tensions built, accepted a process of negotiation, was betrayed and deceived; by Friday, Jones flamed out. His own daughter said Jones had "gone mad."
When a man makes a vow to do something and the entire world suddenly decides to listen, he is on the peculiar ascendancy of fame; there is no upper limit to it. When, however, he allows himself to be swayed from his intention, he gives up the Big Ticket and easily descends into madness. The microphone that gave him life became a dagger twisted in his gut.
By Friday, Jones had been called a "lunatic," "nut job," "nut sack" and "whacko" by most of the talking heads on television and denounced by the entire political establishment from Sarah Palin in Alaska to President Barack Obama, usually in prime time, often live. You would have thought Saudi Arabia had threatened to cut off our oil supply if someone didn't shut Jones up. And who knows?
How he was undone is instructive. The imam from Orlando, Mr. Musri, showed up at his door (shortly after I left, actually) on Wednesday and got a meeting with Jones, at which he seemed to arrange a definitive agreement with Imam Nauf in New York to relocate the Ground Zero mosque.
We're not sure who Jones or the Orlando imam, Musri, actually talked to; Nauf later said it wasn't him. Jones walked out to the cameras and announced that the Koran burning was being canceled because Nauf was going to relocate the mosque. He had been suckered, caught like the fish called suckers that feed off the bottom of streams and won't go for a measly worm on a hook.
Within the hour Reuters and NBC News knocked that answer down, reporting Nauf's intransigence. Jones had to go into limbo mode, in which he was put on figurative hold by the dispatchers, Musri and Nauf, as the house burned down.
It burned very quickly. Jones found himself suddenly trying to stand immobile in two places at once; he had canceled the burning because they were going to move the mosque, and the mosque had betrayed him and the burning was "suspended." He was burning.
Then there is the reliability of telephones. I felt the FBI probably brought satellite phones for a conversation they would have arranged inside the church. But at 1:00 P.M. on Friday, still in this unbearably ambivalent state, another Islamic clergyman named Rev. K.C. Paul appeared and gave an "ultimatum and a challenge" for a principal backer of the Ground Zero mosque, Mr. Faisal. Mr. Faisal should call Mr. Paul and assure him and Mr. Jones that the meeting with Nauf or unspecified others was still on to further the moving of the mosque.
Paul proceeded to give out two phone numbers on live television; both instantly started ringing. Even if Faisal wanted to get through, it was unlikely in the extreme that he ever could. At 3:15 P.M., Paul and Jones emerged again from the church and said they had not heard from him, but were "very, very hopeful" they would. The burning was still canceled.
That was a crucial second step in the suckering of Terry Jones. First, he had to be persuaded to publicly announce the cancellation of his book burning due to a promise made that he had no way of confirming; then he had to defend himself, and that meant a fruitless, foolish "challenge" to the Devil himself, old Nauf, a slick and soft-voiced operator if there ever was one. When the challenge proved impotent against Nauf and Faisal, Jones' boat started floating away from the dock.
Meanwhile, the public was left with the impression that a parade of Islamic clergy, starting with Imam Musri on Thursday and ending by Friday with the Rev. K.C. Paul - had taken over the church. When asked at the mikes what he thought about Jones, who had introduced him as a friend, Rev. Paul replied, "People who do extreme things are extremists."
"Islam is of the Devil" was the title of Jones' book, and those words, in the old Burma Shave style, marched up the front lawn of his church, one or two words at a time. A picture of them adorned the church's now-abandoned Web site. The signs were what first brought him to the media's attention last year, and suddenly - by twists of fate he probably can't comprehend - the Devil was in control. A church member politely asked Paul to back away from the microphone (see video below), but it was too late; the church's lunch had been swiftly eaten.
The whole episode has raised some important questions. For instance, why is it okay for television to show burning hospitals, churches and schools hit by Taliban and al-Qaeda bombs and torches in Afghanistan, and not to show a Koran burning in Cheyenne, Wyo., Springfield, Mo., Nashville, Tenn., sparked by someone's match?
The answer, ostensibly, is that offending Americans - and only a few seem offended these days - is okay because by approving the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero we honor the principle of freedom of religion. We supposedly honor our constitutional freedom of speech by burning an American flag. However, it would be argued, we do not honor the principle of freedom of speech by offending the world's one billion Muslims in allowing a Florida pastor to burn the Koran in Gainesville.
One act, it can be argued, would honor the inclusion of Muslims in American society, which prides itself on the variety of races and diversity of faiths in this country. The other is an act of exclusion, showing the Muslims of the world that our tolerance for diversity does not include them.
Building a mosque in New York City is very much a public process in which hearings, debates, meetings and other public or semi-public discussions take place, with the result that a conclusion is arrived at and an action is taken that may offend some. In the case of burning a Koran, a single person who controls an acre of property and a 5,000-sq.-ft. church decides on his own to offend the entire Muslim world. No votes, debates, discussions or meetings really make any difference, bestow any permits or give a democratic sanction to the event. One man decides to do a thing, and others follow or jeer, and the world at large is put at risk.
That is the argument and the answer. Just as we find it highly offensive at a very personal level when someone burns the American flag, so do Muslims find burning the Koran repellent. We permit people to burn the flag without excessive intrusion - it might well lead to a broken jaw or something, but not to suicide bombings. Burning a book that is holy to a billion people is at another level of offense. A court would treat the two acts as equal, however, and permit both. That's important to remember. Acts in furtherance of political speech are especially protected under the law, but the policemen who quickly took the arm of a protestor as he was burning pages of the Koran at the Ground Zero mosque demonstration on Saturday (see video on AR's homepage) and gently led him away from the media horde did not try to protect those rights. They tried to protect the man from those who would violate his rights. In a perfect world, the courts might observe, they should have arrested anyone who attempted to interfere with him.
What if Rev. Jones had stuck with his original plan to burn some 200 Korans early this Saturday evening? The event would have started shortly after the University of Florida Gators had (in all probability) badly whipped the University of South Florida Bulls into submission before 90,000 rabid football fans a few miles away at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Here's what I think we would have seen.
First, upon preparing to douse the books with kerosene, a fierce shout would have gone up from Muslim protestors a few hundred yards away. An angry group of radical left-wing protestors and others would have joined in. Thousands of passing cars would have joined the cacaphony of honking horns.
Helicopters would be flying overhead; media photographers (except from Associated Press, which was taking the day off) would have strained at the crowd barriers as Rev. Jones lit a flimsy wooden match upon which the world's fate was poised. Firemen would nod to the cops and they would seize him - before the match dropped - for imminent violation of a Gainesville fire ordinance that bans open burning without a permit. And the sky, too, would open up and rain would pour down on Gainesville.
The ruined books would sit naked in the field, smelling of accelerant, until a Muslim official would politely approach and ask permission of the police and the church to pick them up and bury them respectfully. Jones would continue to bray about his First Amendment rights.
And maybe, or maybe not, someone in the crowd of departing jubilant Gator fans and disappointed Bulls supporters would pull a tight little cord close to his chest and vanish in a searing fiery blast. And perhaps that would happen several times in Gainesville, and in other places. Islamic fundamentalists have very little compunction about becoming martyrs and taking other with them. Sept. 11 and the burning of the Koran would be a perfect occasion.
Around the world, since the books have been disrespectfully treated even if not burned, the riots already in progress would have intensified, and probably in new cities like Paris and Berlin, London and Rome. There, others would die. You can probably imagine the rest.
What will actually happen, though, may also turn out be very painful. Much of the damage Jones hoped to stir up has been done. He has intensified the zeal of the rotten bastards who make up the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and they will do their damnedest to kill more of us anywhere and any way they can. It's enough to make you believe that Jones was the Devil himself.
There's a funny thing about that.
Jones came to Gainesville after his church in Germany kicked him out when they felt his had become a self-serving, Jim Jones-like cult. He relocated his church to Gainesville, just off 53rd Ave., which crosses 43rd St. a few blocks away. On the other side of that intersection 53rd becomes Millhopper Ave., named after a 120-ft. deep, 500-ft. wide sinkhole. It's a state geological treasure that vaguely resembles the old funnel-shaped grist mills of the 19th century.
The sinkhole is an apt metaphor for our human predicament. It got its real name after local farmers a century ago traded tales about strange occurrences and a mysterious visitor who left behind old bones and shark teeth the farmers saw as sacrifices to the Devil. That's the park's official name: Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park.
It's the perfect place for Mr. Jones, shark teeth and all.