Even ogres can serve a purpose. The "Reverend" Terry Jones has at least shown us the ugly consequences of the Islamophobia that was this summer's political fad by turning the tables. How does it feel to be caricatured as a nation of Koran-burning radicals? Americans were appalled to find that a solitary religious bigot and his tiny congregation of 50 pseudo Christians had hijacked our global image. We squirmed as a warped little corner of America's Judeo-Christian culture colored the entire country in the eyes of the world the way Americans let a warped little corner of Islamic culture color all Muslims, even Muslim Americans.
Let's not point fingers: Jones was everybody's Frankenstein, starting with the media, my own profession. When it came to Jones and his so-called church, the Dove World Outreach Center, in Gainesville, Fla., we affirmed all those Onion.com lampoons that show today's media ready to hype any obscure idiot playing with matches as an important story. One of our biggest journalistic sins was helping right-wing demagogues like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin turn the "Ground Zero mosque" story into a disgraceful midterm wedge issue and thereby encourage delusional, attention-starved hatemongers like Jones to build their bonfires of intolerance. Jones, in fact, insists that he suspended his Koran conflagration, which he'd planned for Saturday to mark the 9/11 anniversary, because he was told the New York mosque and cultural center would be moved. The mosque's imam denies that any such deal was struck, and Jones is now thinking aloud about rekindling his stunt.
We can't pin everything on 24-hour news or 24-hour Newt. Another summer lowlight was watching New Yorkers supposedly among the world's most enlightened citizenries expose their anti-Muslim underbelly. In a New York Times poll last week, two-thirds of them opposed the mosque near Ground Zero, one-fifth admitted to animosity toward Muslims, and one-third pegged Muslims as being sympathetic to terrorism. It's understandable at first to sympathize with New Yorkers who argue that a mosque near Ground Zero is insensitive until you realize that what they're really saying is that all Muslims are like the ones who brought down the Twin Towers. And that's no better than a Muslim in Jakarta insisting that all Christians are like Terry Jones.
One of the only positive things to take from this debacle is the realization that the genuinely enlightened city was Gainesville, which has roundly rejected Jones. Far from being the Bible Belt backwater that northerners like New Yorkers would assume it is, it's a progressive college town (home to the University of Florida) known for its green ethos, for electing an openly gay mayor this year and for its strong interfaith climate. The Dove center recently complained on its website that Gainesville "may have more 'coexist' bumper stickers ... than anywhere else per capita." (Jones went to Dove in 2008 after being kicked out as the pastor of its sister church in Cologne, Germany, in part because of his messianic condemnation of Germany's tolerance toward Muslims.)
When Mayor Craig Lowe was elected this year, Jones and his Dove devotees stood on Gainesville's streets holding signs that read "No Homo Mayor." These are the kinds of losers the media has inflated on the current-events roster these days to the point at which no less than U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had to personally call Jones this week and plead with him not to burn Korans, as the act has the potential to inflame Muslim extremists and put U.S. troops in Afghanistan at risk.
Let's hope Gainesville's interfaith attitude now spreads. Maybe the Jones scare will prompt more Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations to hold joint Father's Day services that honor their common ancestral link to Abraham and remind Christians that burning a Koran means torching a text that mentions Jesus in reverential terms almost 100 times. My Muslim friends are as chagrined to see the misogynistic, homophobic leadership of Saudi Arabia define their Islamic identity as I am to see the misogynistic, homophobic leadership of the Vatican define my Catholic identity. And yet we find understanding in commiseration: just as they appreciate the spiritual debt that Islam owes Jesus, I recall that were it not for great Muslim thinkers like Ibn Rushd (called Averroes by the admiring Europeans) who conveyed classical learning to great Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, my faith would have remained mired in the medieval mud.
So what can American Christians outraged by Jones' hatefulness do? Stop by a local mosque today and wish the people well as they celebrate 'Id al-Fitr, the end of the holy month of Ramadan (and try one of the great sweets). Or for that matter, wish Jewish people well as they celebrate the High Holy Days that began Wednesday evening with Rosh Hashanah. But most of all, remember how lousy it felt this week when the world equated you with Terry Jones.