There was a time when Terry Jones, the pastor at the center of the Koran-burning storm, might have felt right at home in Gainesville. A generation ago, the north Florida college town was comprised of a conservative Bible Belt community best known for the invention of Gatorade. The University of Florida (UF) football team didn't field its first black player until 1970. Ideas like interfaith dialogue and homosexual rights were as far away as the Sodom and Gomorrah of Miami.
But the Gainesville that Jones inhabits today is a lot different. In the past couple of decades, as UF has gained academic stature and become an increasingly popular choice for students from other parts of the country and the world, Gainesville (pop. 125,000) has morphed into a progressive metropolitan area known as much for recycling as for religion. This year, it elected its first openly gay mayor, and with a Muslim population that's grown to 1,500, its interfaith relations are widely considered among Florida's best. Says Ismail ibn Ali, 21, a UF senior and head of the Islam on Campus group: "People here are a lot more open and accepting than I expected for a town in the middle of the Bible Belt."
And that, say locals, helps explain why Jones, the pastor of the Evangelical Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, plans to burn the Koran on Saturday to mark the anniversary of 9/11 and most likely set off a bonfire of protest across the Muslim world that U.S. officials fear could put American troops and citizens abroad at greater risk. In a city where there's really no longer a place for the kind of religious intolerance promoted by Jones' shrinking congregation, which has fewer than 50 members and whose website recently decried Gainesville's prevailing credo of "coexistence," Jones is simply lashing out for attention in the only way delusional bigots know how.
But what's most ironic is that a big impetus for Jones' publicity stunt is the anti-Islamic feelings emanating from New York City whose residents, we heartland philistines are told, are the nation's most enlightened, but whose majority opposition to a mosque near Ground Zero has only encouraged Islamophobes like Jones and, in the process, tainted the image of a Florida town that seems to deserve it least. "What Mr. Jones' so-called church is doing is definitely not representative of Gainesville," says Mayor Craig Lowe, who has declared Saturday "Interfaith Solidarity Day" in his city, for clerics, students and residents to plan peaceful events while the Dove folks torch a couple hundred copies of Islam's holiest book. "This actually presents us with an opportunity to project who we really are."