An incitement to violence

Nicole Colson reports on the terrible consequences of a Koran-burning in Florida.

Florida Islamophobe Terry JonesFlorida Islamophobe Terry Jones

SEVERAL DAYS of rioting that claimed at least 30 lives in Afghanistan were sparked last week by news that a Florida pastor had burned a Koran in a deliberately provocative act.

Pastor Terry Jones, of the Gainesville, Fla., Dove World Outreach Center, was widely condemned last fall when he announced plans to publicly burn a Koran on September 11. Amid a wave of condemnation and protests that rightly called out Jones as an anti-Muslim bigot, he was pressured into calling off the event.

But on March 20, now out of the media spotlight, Jones went ahead with his disgusting plan. He organized a six-hour mock "trial" of Islam that ended with the burning of a Koran--after a poll on Dove's Facebook page chose burning over other "options" including shredding the holy book.

News of the Koran burning sparked riots in Mazar-i-Sharif. In the worst of the attacks, a United Nations headquarters was attacked, and 12 people, seven of them international staff members, were murdered. Two were reportedly beheaded. The riots then spread to Kandahar, where thousands took to the streets. To date, some 30 people have been killed and more than 150 injured in the violence.

At least nine of those killed and many of the injured were protesters, shot by Afghan police who reportedly fired indiscriminately into the crowds.

For his part, Jones says he feels no guilt--and would do it all again if he had the chance. "It was intended to stir the pot; if you don't shake the boat, everyone will stay in their complacency," Jones told the New York Times. Jones continued his rant:

Emotionally, it's not all that easy. People have tried to make us responsible for the people who are killed. It's unfair and somewhat damaging...

Did our action provoke them? Of course. Is it a provocation that can be justified? Is it a provocation that should lead to death? When lawyers provoke me, when banks provoke me, when reporters provoke me, I can't kill them. That would not fly.

Jones says that for his next stunt, he is considering putting the Muslim prophet Mohammed "on trial."

Jones is a former hotel manager-turned-pastor whose anti-Muslim fanaticism holds little weight in the Gainesville community. Hundreds of people have turned out to protest him in the past, and he himself admits that his personal "crusade" has driven away all but the most hard core of his religious followers, leaving him nearly bankrupt.

According to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Congress will "look into" Jones' burning of the Koran, and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, called the burning "hateful, extremely disrespectful, and enormously intolerant."

Jones' actions may have alienated even many of those on the right, but he does represent the most vicious edge of an Islamophobia that, in less virulent forms, has become a hallmark of the political "discussion" in the U.S.

That Islamophobia was on display in the hysteria over plans to build an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan last year, and in the Tea Party-led protest of a fundraiser sponsored by the Islamic Circle of North America in Yorba Linda, Calif., in February--where demonstrators hurled insults like "Terrorists!" and "We don't want you here" at the families attending, including small children.

Beyond this spewing of hate, Islamophobia got official legitimacy last month when Republican Rep. Peter King held a congressional hearing into the supposed "Muslim menace" in the U.S.

But if the Republican right has been the main champions of Islamophobia, Democrats have done their part to fan the flames. The policies of both parties--from support for continued war and occupation, to the propping up of corrupt regimes in the Middle East, to indefinite detentions and the continued refusal to close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp--pave the way for Jones and his ilk to get a hearing.

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IN THE wake of the riots in Afghanistan, many rushed to condemn the violence without considering where such rage comes from.

Writing in The Nation, Robert Dreyfuss, in a piece titled "Afghans and Floridians: Extremism Builds Extremism," commented:

If we're going to war against religious extremists--and let's face it, crazies--it's a toss-up whether to invade Florida or Afghanistan. I'm not in favor of either one, but the United States has picked Afghanistan, leaving the crazies in Florida a free hand.

Deranged violence is spreading across Afghanistan in the wake of Koran burnings in Florida. The fact that it's happening might signal to American policymakers that bringing democracy to Afghanistan, at least anything that looks like the system that prevails in the United States, is not happening. It might not be a clash of civilizations, but when a population is so reactionary and vulnerable to religious extremism, they're not likely to march in docile fashion to the ballot box, even when encouraged to do so by 100,000 U.S. troops.

What's happening is a textbook case of extremism begetting extremism.

For Dreyfuss to equate Jones and rioting Afghans as "equally crazy" is appalling.

Terry Jones has never lived under a military occupation. Nor has he seen his family members murdered by U.S. bombs or tortured by U.S. troops. These are the actions and policies that fuel violence in Afghanistan--the incomparably greater violence of the U.S. military machine.

Those rioting in Afghanistan are angered by nearly a decade of occupation and bombing, continuing war crimes, and life under corrupt political leaders propped up by the U.S.

Take, for example, the activities of the "Kill Team"--a group of U.S. soldiers in the Army's Bravo Company operating in Kandahar, who murdered Afghan civilians, mutilated their corpses and posed for photos with the bodies. Following the murder of a 15-year-old Afghan farmer by members of the Kill Team, Rolling Stone reported:

No one seemed more pleased by the kill than Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the platoon's popular and hard-charging squad leader. "It was like another day at the office for him," one soldier recalls. Gibbs started "messing around with the kid," moving his arms and mouth and "acting like the kid was talking." Then, using a pair of razor-sharp medic's shears, he reportedly sliced off the dead boy's pinky finger and gave it to Holmes, as a trophy for killing his first Afghan.

According to his fellow soldiers, Holmes took to carrying the finger with him in a zip-lock bag. "He wanted to keep the finger forever and wanted to dry it out," one of his friends would later report. "He was proud of his finger."

Abdullah Jan, the father-in-law of Mullah Allah Dad, who was murdered by the Kill Team, told Time magazine last fall:

People in his village "hated" the Americans even before these killings, he explained, because of errant air strikes and heavy-handed night operations into private homes. The deep anti-American sentiment, he adds, has only grown worse since [Dad] was murdered. "The Americans really love to kill innocent people," he says. "We don't have a court for [the accused soldiers], but [God] will give them the strongest punishment."

While the mainstream media focuses on the "violence" of residents of Kandahar after the Koran burning, it should be pointed out that few media outlets, with the exception of Rolling Stone and the German magazine Der Spiegel, devoted significant coverage to the atrocities committed by members of the "Kill Team."

Nevertheless, the Nation's Dreyfuss goes on to state, "Since 1970, at least--and in fact, far longer than that--the Muslim world has suffered from the rise of religious extremism, whether in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia or Iran's extremist clerics."

Lumping together such disparate groups is not only ignorant, but fails to even begin to consider the way that U.S. Middle East policies promoted or propped up various Muslim political factions to use as pawns in its imperialist strategies.

The thousands of Afghans taking to the streets to protest the burning of the Koran aren't prone to violent religious extremism any more than the average Floridian is prone to being an intolerant bigot. But thanks to the U.S. "war on terror," the dominant narrative in the media--even in liberal publications like the Nation--has been that Muslims are particularly inclined to violence.

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EQUALLY disturbing, however, is the way that some U.S. political leaders seem eager to exploit Jones' actions for their own purposes.

Appearing on Face the Nation, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, suggested that Jones' Koran burning should prompt Congress to look into limiting some forms of speech:

Free speech is a great idea, but we're in a war. During World War II, we had limits on what you could say if it would inspire the enemy...[A]nytime we can push back here in America against actions like this that put our troops at risk we should do it, and I look forward to working with Senators Kerry, and Reid, and others to condemn this, condemn violence all over the world based on the name of religion.

The subtext is not hard to read--Graham wants to exploit the disgust that any decent person feels toward Jones as a justification for limiting freedom of speech--and we know from history that the people who bear the brunt of state repression during wartime aren't right-wing bigots, but opponents of U.S. imperialism.

In fact, Graham himself has played a role in propping up Islamophobia in the U.S. He supported Peter King's anti-Muslim hearings, telling reporters, "We're at war with an ideology."

This rank hypocrisy emanates from both parties. As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald wrote:

[T]here is an extreme irony in Harry Reid and Lindsey Graham, of all people, suddenly worrying about actions that trigger anger and violence in the Muslim world. These two senators, after all, have supported virtually every one of America's actions which have triggered vastly more anti-American anger, vengeance and violence in the Muslim world than anything Pastor Jones could dream of spawning--from the attack on Iraq to the decade-long occupation of Afghanistan to blind support for Israel to the ongoing camp at Guantánamo....

By publicly demanding that Guantánamo detainees not be tried in the U.S., Reid played a major role in preventing closure of that camp, while Graham has been a leading advocate of the indefinite detention regime that made the camp so controversial and which itself spawns substantial anti-American violence in Afghanistan. Reid and Graham both voted for the attack on Iraq. Reid and Graham continue to be outspoken supporters of the war in Afghanistan. Both Senators are blind supporters of Israel, including its most heinous acts.

If they're looking for targets to punish whose ideas have triggered violence and anti-American rage in the Muslim world, they should look in the mirror.