The on again, off again Koran burning planned byÂ a small time evangelical preacher in Gainsville Florida has received world wide coverage and raised serious concern among the US military and foreign policy elite that it will cause a murderous reaction against US citizens living and fighting in the Muslim world. The issues has dominated the news in the US for days (I am currently located about 120 miles southeast of Gainsville), played out in a perverse media tag team with the so-called 9-11 mosque controversy. Official concern is so great that President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and ISAF commander General David Petreus have denounced the planned pyrotechnics, while Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a personal call to the preacher to ask him to cease and desist.
So far, the preacher has said that he will stop the burnings only if the 9-11 mosque supporters agree to move it someplace else. Which means that on top of the provocation and outrage he intends, he has now added blackmail.
Fueled by right wing media led by Fox News TV and Radio outlets, the issue has been debatedÂ on a free speech grounds. It is generally accepted that the wacked out preacher has a right to burn Korans, but division is over whether he has a responsibility to not do so given the larger consequences of his actions. Some officials have tried to find a way to stop him using hate speech legislation, saying that his obvious intent is to spread hatred towards all Muslims and the faith itself, something that is not protected by the first amendment. Others have responded that he should be allowed to do as he please and that the US should not kow-tow to “terrorists” just because Muslims react hysterically to the desecration of the holy book or images of the prophet.
I shall leave aside the obvious greater harm argument that clearly demonstrates why the Koran burning is a bad idea. I shall also avoid addressing the fact that Islam is not the only religion where its adherents respond violently to perceived insults to their faith. I will leave aside the argued to death free speech aspects of the case. Instead, I will address two aspects of this affair that appear to be underplayed.
The first issue is a matter of perception of the event in the Muslim world. Like it or not, most people living in Muslim nations cannot fathom the concept of a separation of church and state, or that the US government and local authorities do not have the power to just physically stop the preacher from holding the event. That is because most live in authoritarian states where religion and politics are deeply intertwined and governments regularly intervene in matters of religion (to include prohibitions on certain types of religious activity, regulations on marriage, etc.).Â Â As a result, most citizens in the Muslim worldÂ cannot conceive ofÂ such an event being carried out without government approval, so see it as an officially sanctioned statement of how the US views Islam. That may be ignorant or confused on the facts, but it is the reality of the context in which the Koran burning is perceived in the Muslim world. (Note to those who may take offense: this is a comment about the deeply ingrained authoritarian nature of power structures in the Muslim world rather than about the content of its faith, and refers not to the educated classes but to the broader mass of people who do not have access to the facilities and vehicles that would allow them to make discerning judgements on international issues. The same can be said about other political cultures as well).
The second issue is the reckless role of the US press. The preacher in question leads a 50 person fringe fundamentalist congregation that has in the past protested against gays and threatened to torch a copy of the Torah (since he believes that Judaism is also a “dirty” religion). He clearly has delusions of grandeur, if not being a few cans short of a six pack. The national press paid no mind to his previous antics, so why is it doing so now? Why not just ignore him? Why is this eventÂ considered front page news when his other antics were not?Â Â In sum: why give this nutbar oxygen?
Given the sensitivities at play, the national press could have buried the story in the “odd news” section or not covered it at all given its marginal nature. To their credit, outlets like the NYT and WP have limited their coverage to the reactions and not played the story on the front pages of their respective publications. But, led by Fox and a network of Christian radio and TV outlets, the US press has covered the Gainsville Goober as if he were Sarah Palin’s running mate.
That is where they fail their obligations to the public. As with any democratic entity, the press has responsibilities along with rights. Those responsibilities include not inflaming or otherwise causing small events to bocome international incidents that have the potential to cause great harm to US interests and its citizens. It has an obligation not to stoke the fires of religious and ethnic hatred. And yet the right-wing media in the US has done exactly that, aided and abetted by conservative politicians like Newt Gingrich who see political gain being madeÂ off ofÂ the scapegoating of Muslims and (with regards to immigration and future demographics) Hispanics.
This helps explain why the tone of public debate in the US has become so vulgarised and debased. There is a large element of the press that has become “Murdochised,” (sic), that is, it will report on anything that can cause scandal, outrage and division in the interest of profit and political advantage. It has eschewed its responsibilites to the larger public interest in the pursuit of partisan gain. It is, in other words, unworthy of the constitutional guarantees under whichÂ it cloaks its behaviour.
AllÂ of which isÂ to say that if there is a nasty fallout from this stunt, whatever blood is spilled is not only on the hands of the religious provocateur and his small band of intolerant followers, but also on the hands of their media and political facilitators who turned a backwoods hoe down into an international incident.