MUSLIM WORLD: Concerns linger after Florida pastor says he might burn Korans after all
As America awaits to see whether Florida pastor Terry Jones and his church followers will create a bonfire of Korans this weekend, after Thursday's disconnect in talks between the anti-Muslim evangelist and a Florida imam, another drama is playing out in the Middle East, where there are profound fears that Jones could incite violence and sectarian strife and seriously harm America's ties in the region should he decide to go ahead with his plan.
On Friday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the Koran-burning event as "a Zionist plot" that contravenes the teachings of the prophets of all the world's religions, according to state television.
Though President Obama, his deputies and even some Republicans have slammed the preacher's plan to set fire to 200 copies of Islam's holy book on the lawn outside his small church in Gainesville, observers fear that images of a mound of burning holy books broadcast on Al Jazeera and other pan-Arab news channels could further inflame passions.
"We are daring the Florida church followers to burn Korans, and then the world will see who the real extremists are," Mohamed Hassan, a cleric and a lecturer of Islamic Sharia law at Egypt's Assyut College of Islamic Principles, told Babylon & Beyond. "Burning [the Koran] out of hatred and with the aim of the defaming Islam is one of the biggest insults toward the religion, God and God's words. Whoever does it should be punished with the same punishment as a Muslim who disbelieves and converts to another religion."
Shortly after he backed off from his Koran-burning plans on Thursday, Jones backtracked and said he and his followers were still considering the event after all. For now, it has been "suspended."
The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, sternly warned earlier this week that the act could pose a threat to his troops and instigate violence. On Thursday night, media reports began to trickle in about hundreds of young Muslim men rioting in the Afghan capital, throwing rocks and chanting "Death to America" in protest of Jones' plans.
Worries of sectarian strife are also mounting among some Arab Christians, who say Jones and fellow Koran-burners could pit Muslims against Christians throughout the Middle East, endangering small minorities already under pressure.
"Religiously, it's forbidden, said a 52-year-old clothing importer in mainly Christian East Beirut who gave his name only as Ziad. "This spurs sectarian divisions between Islam and Christianity. It's haram [forbidden]. This could create a problem anywhere where Muslims and Christians are living together. Of course, they have to stop him."
After being largely ignored, the Koran-burning suddenly dominated editorials in Thursday's papers across the Middle East, on the eve of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
"The repercussions of the 9/11 attacks are still unfolding in the U.S. today," Yasser abu-Hilalah wrote in Thursday's edition of Al Ghad, a pro-government Jordanian daily. "One of their manifestations is the mad action of the crazy reverend. It is true that he is isolated and rejected. However, he is an expression of the current fear-mongering against Islam which has become a profitable political trade."
In Iran, Jones' defiance of the widespread criticism and condemnation against his planned action topped the news bulletins on the Iranian Arabic news channel Al Alam, followed by a roundup of world reaction, including that of Obama and the Iranian foreign minister, Manoucher Mottaki, who called the act "obscene" and a "violation of Muslims' world beliefs."
At one point, Al Alam brought international affairs analyst Mahmud Ramadan on air live from Beirut. In his interview, Ramadan warned that the Koran-burning would create an "earthquake" and "shake" the Islamic, Christian and Jewish worlds.
Other observers, however, set such worries aside, stressing that the massive global protests and condemnation against Jones -- especially from the Vatican -- will head off the disaster that some fear if the Koran-burning goes ahead.
"The call to burn copies of the Koran will not succeed in fomenting sedition between Christians and Muslims," said the Qatari newspaper Al Rayah. "The call has been received with a wide range of condemnations from the Islamic and Western countries alike. The Vatican's reaction -- that condemned such a call and considered it a contradiction to faith and Christianity -- is enough."
In the wake of the extremist preachings by Jones, who claims that Islam is the work of the devil, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan weighed in on the debate on Islamophobia from a general perspective, appealing to Muslims to better stand up intellectually to those that he said are trying to smear their religion and holy book.
"When we have a holy book that describes the truth in the most beautiful way and that book has been preserved for 1,400 years, why is it that we have difficulty in explaining the message of the Koran to the world and in expressing ourselves?" the Turkish premier asked in a speech at a conference on Islamic history in Istanbul on Thursday.
"Let us not apportion blame to those who wage such dark and dirty propaganda. We are to blame, because this means that we cannot explain ourselves and that we are not trying. We must sit down and think about what we have done or are doing to dissipate existing prejudices," he said.
Meanwhile, peaceful campaigns by activists from Muslim and Christian communities, denouncing Jones while calling for calm, are mushrooming on social networking sites such as Facebook, attracting scores of supporters.
"I've been heartened by how the Muslim community is reacting to it through launching campaigns to raise awareness about Islam and moderation," Mohammad Azraq, a 29-year old Jordanian consultant, told Babylon & Beyond.
-- Alexandra Sandels in BeirutPhoto: Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center speaks to the media on Thursday, accompanied by Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida. Credit: Associated Press