The first thing to note about Pastor Terry Jones is that his small Florida church had a congregation of about 50 a year ago, which by all accounts has declined rather more since. The second thing to note is that this small time extremist has been condemned by pretty well anyone who can get in front of a microphone in America. So we are entitled to show bemusement, incredulity, disbelief and a whole range of other emotions besides when we watch the astonishing level of protests in the Islamic world, listen to portentous and inflammatory pronouncements from country leaders like the president of Indonesia, and hear of the shootings of four people outside the one Anglican church left in Iraq. If we can condemn Pastor Jones as an extremist, words surely start to fail us in describing the people who are reacting thus. If nothing else, the mendacious minister’s would-be book burning has illumined, once again, the enormous gulf that exists between East and West.
Pastor Jones’ proposed stunt was misguided, misconceived and thoroughly ill-considered. The gospels from which he presumably preaches contain the injunction from Jesus to love and pray for your enemies, something that the pastor seems not to have understood. He is also a minister of a religion, Christianity, which is itself a religion of the word. He must have therefore understood the incendiary nature of his proposal to burn the books of another religion. In normal circumstances, he is hardly a man who should have drawn anyone’s attention – and, it appears, in his own home town, he didn’t! So much for the pastor.
But next, what about the White House? They could hardly have done any more to publicise this small town figure and his preposterous stunt. Their leading general in Afghanistan, the defence secretary, the president himself – all have combined to make sure the world knows about Mr. Jones. Granted, they acted in good faith – their enormous concern not to allow any smidgen of doubt that they regard the Moslem world with anything other than respect may well have led them to go into over-drive. From the country which endured the 9/11 attacks, this isn’t bad going, but it was, in this instance, bad politics. Not for the first time, the Obama Administration has mis-stepped in its media handling of a difficult issue. This is especially a pity given the administration’s generally positive approach in foreign affairs, which has marked such a quantum change from its predecessor.
And what can we say, if we dare say anything, about the reaction of the Moslem world? Perhaps nothing is the most sensible option, but there is nothing in the statements of leading Islamic statesmen to encourage us to think that they are about to enter the land of moderation and reason any time soon.
One of the West’s problems, incidentally, is its lack of empathy with the sort of religious feeling that exists amongst the majority of citizens in the middle east. The western nations have left their religious fanaticism behind – for the most part – and long ago decided to abandon stonings, burnings, religious legalism and persecution as essentially Bad Things. We are still arrogant, and we still display an astonishing desire to run the rest of the world, but as a governing ideology, I think the liberalism of the west has much to commend it. It stands in rather stark contrast to the illiberalism of its own minority – thank-you pastor Jones – and too many nations beyond.
Mehdi Hasan in the Guardian reflects on how the West lost the sympathy of the Islamic world after 9/11 with its alienating 'war on terror'. A depressing, if illuminating, piece.