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Church’s Quran-Burning Pledge Rankles U.S. Diplomatic, Military Officials

September 7, 2010 at 6:13 PM EDT
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Pastor Terry Jones and his 50-member congregation in Florida plan to burn copies of the Quran to mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11. Gen. David Petraeus warned that could put American military lives in danger and empower extremists. Others said it could strengthen a view in Afghanistan of growing Islamophobia in the West.

GWEN IFILL: Anti-Muslim rhetoric from the pastor of a small Florida church sparks concern around the world.

Cries of “Death to America” and “Long live Islam” rang out in Kabul Monday, as protesters burned the American flag and this man is effigy. The figure represents Terry Jones, the previously obscure pastor of a 50-member Florida church. His anti-Islamic pronouncements have now inflamed passions around the globe.

PASTOR TERRY JONES, Dove World Outreach Center: Islam is of the devil.

GWEN IFILL: This Saturday, he’s vowed to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by burning copies of the Islamic holy book, the Koran.

PASTOR TERRY JONES: I think what we are doing through our action, we are revealing that, actually, Islam is much more dangerous, much more violent than — than people would like to believe.

GWEN IFILL: Jones’ provocation, the latest shoe to drop in a continuing debate over religious freedom and tolerance, sparked response from senior U.S. officials. David Petraeus, the top general in Afghanistan, said Jones’ plan is dangerous.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, commander, International Security Assistance Force: It puts our soldiers at jeopardy, very likely. And I think, in fact, the images from such an activity could very well be used by extremists here and around the world.

GWEN IFILL: Asked whether he was endangering Americans, Jones said:

PASTOR TERRY JONES: We — we are putting our own life at risk. We have received over 100 death threats, some of them being very graphic, some of them stating exactly when they will come, how they will kill us, what they will do. I mean, of course. But, then again, does that not show and reveal the nature of Islam? I think what we are doing is long overdue. We are revealing, again, the violence of Islam that is much, much deeper than we would like to admit.

GWEN IFILL: State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley today called the planned burning un-American and said the potential images could stir old resentments.

P.J. CROWLEY, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs: It can have at least as powerful impact as the tragic events and photos that Abu Ghraib had. But, at the same time, you know, people around the world need to also understand that America is not represented by one pastor or 50 followers. We are a nation of 300 million people. And — and the vast majority of Americans are standing up this week and saying that, you know, these contemplated actions are inappropriate, they’re abhorrent, and they should not happen.

GWEN IFILL: Many Afghans appear to believe Jones’ views are widely held in the U.S. We spoke today to Jean MacKenzie of GlobalPost, who was reporting in Kabul.

JEAN MACKENZIE, GlobalPost: This Koran-burning campaign, which has been mounted by the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida, coming on the heels of the Ground Zero mosque debate, is starting to convince Afghans that there is a strong Islamophobic strain in the United States and in the West in general. And trying to convince them that this is a very small group of people and do not represent the United States so far has been an uphill battle.

GWEN IFILL: In Washington, a group of interfaith leaders gathered today to denounce what they see as creeping Islamophobia. The Reverend Richard Cizik is an evangelical Christian.

REV. RICHARD CIZIK, The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good: Those mainly conservative Christians who are responding to their Muslim brothers and sisters, their fellow Americans, with anti-Muslim bigotry or hatred, they are openly rejecting, you see, the First Amendment principles of religious liberty, which we, as evangelical Christians, benefit daily.

Watch out for so casually trampling on the religious liberty of others. You may be able to do that when you are the majority. But, if you undermine liberty for other people’s children today, your own children may one day see their religious liberties deprived from them.

GWEN IFILL: This is not the first time desecration of the Koran has stirred emotion. In 2005, “Newsweek” reported that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility flushed the Koran down a toilet. The story was later retracted, but 15 people died and scores were wounded in protests. Also that year, a Danish newspaper cartoon depicted the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist, which also led to protests and violence.

For more on all this, we’re joined by Marc Lynch, the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He also blogs about the Middle East for Welcome.

MARC LYNCH, George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: One pastor, 50 members of this small church, and yet we have General David Petraeus, the most powerful general in Afghanistan, weighing in on this, the State Department weighing in on this. Why was this significant, what’s going on down there?

MARC LYNCH: I think it is significant, because, you know, people over there do pay attention to what happens inside the United States. And I think this has gotten a lot of attention because people feel that it says something about what America really is. I mean, you know, we have been trying ever since the Bush administration to convince the Muslim world that we’re against extremists, and we’re — we’re in favor of good relations with the Islamic world and with Muslims.

And then, when they see images like this, and they see especially the signs and the images and something as graphic as burning the Koran, then they say to themselves, well, maybe that’s not true. Maybe al-Qaida is right, and it is America against Islam.

GWEN IFILL: And so this then undercuts big speeches that the president gives, for instance, about friendship with the Muslim world?

MARC LYNCH: That’s exactly right. And, you know, it’s not just President Obama. He’s done a phenomenal job, in my opinion, of trying to bridge that gap. But President Bush did the same thing, and really trying to make it clear that we were not at war with Islam, that we respected Islam.

And this has been a bipartisan part of how America has tried to deal with 9/11, with the fallout from 9/11, with the Muslim world as a whole. And then, when you see the kinds of events that we have right now, it really, really hurts what we have been trying to do.

GWEN IFILL: You follow some of the — some of these jihadist forums online. What is the debate? What are they saying about this?

MARC LYNCH: For the jihadists themselves, they’re not particularly surprised, because it fits their world view perfectly. So, they see this more as something to be used. I think the idea that this is going to take extremists and suddenly make them more extreme is wrong. Where it’s really playing out is with the mainstream, with Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, you know, the major TV stations, newspapers. Those are the ones who, you know, they weren’t really very happy with al-Qaida.

They had been increasingly — al-Qaida, become increasingly marginal to Muslim public debate. And now the real impact is going to be felt with those moderates, who already feel besieged with what’s happened with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the like. Those are the ones who are most likely to be affected by this.

GWEN IFILL: Does General Petraeus, by — by responding to this, does he elevate that debate? Does he give it more credence?

MARC LYNCH: I think that that’s — that’s already gone. It’s already happening over there.

It’s been — the — the burn a Koran day was covered on the major TV stations. The — the protests about the Ground Zero mosque was covered heavily on Arab TV stations. So, right now, across the Arab media and across the blogs, on the jihadist forums, the newspapers, everywhere, there is a lot of focus on the fact that America right now is in the grip of this — of this trend towards anti-Islamic rhetoric and — and actions.

So, there’s already a spotlight there. I think General Petraeus was simply stating the reality, undeniable reality, that this is going to make things a lot more difficult for our attempts to win over moderate, mainstream Muslims.

GWEN IFILL: Explain — explain to me a bit about the power of image in this — kind of the debate. We talked about Abu Ghraib. We heard P.J. Crowley talk about it. We talked about what happened with the images of Mohammed and the rioting that happened after that cartoon appeared. What is it about these images and these threats which can so quickly — it’s like throwing a match on gasoline.

MARC LYNCH: The images become iconic. And you remember what it felt like immediately after 9/11, when you saw images of angry Arabs or Afghans burning American flags. And those images, they — they went through our entire national consciousness. And we felt it so deeply.

And it’s the same thing over there. Abu Ghraib, the scene — the iconic image from Abu Ghraib, those things, they — they get into your mind. And they — they bring everything together and make it coherent.

And, so, we have these sophisticated arguments and debates about — about American public diplomacy, about strategy and the like. And, yet, if the first thing that comes to your mind when an American soldier or diplomat comes and knocks on your door is a man in a hood from Abu Ghraib or a Christian pastor, what appears to be an American Christian, burning Korans, if that’s the first image in your mind, you’re not going to listen to anything else, especially if it confirms what many people have already been saying for years, when it fits that narrative of the U.S. being at war with Islam.

GWEN IFILL: How do you battle that misperception? Not only do we have misperceptions about whether Muslims are willing to renounce violence, but, also, they have misperceptions about who is representative of the American psyche.

MARC LYNCH: You know who you should ask, is Michael Bloomberg. The mayor of New York, with his intervention in the debate about the Ground Zero mosque, that sparked more conversations and more positive discussion about America than almost anything I have seen. There, you saw someone who is not the first person you would expect who would leap into the hearts of the Muslims of the world.

And, yet, when he just put his foot down and said, this is not who America is, this is not what America is about, people listened over there. And that really shows that America is not monolithic. I think that our leaders do have an obligation to step in and make that clear. And I think that the same is true of those who maybe are opportunistically using this for a political end to understand how dangerous it can be out there in the world.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we will see what happens this Saturday in Florida. Thank you very much, Marc Lynch, from George Washington University.

MARC LYNCH: Thanks, Gwen.