Of course there's no comparison between murdering thousands of innocents and the symbolic burning of a holy book, but Florida preacher Terry Jones, who plans to torch a pile of Korans on Saturday, appears to share a media strategy with Osama bin Laden and Johnny Rotten.
Consider: Jones heads up the Dove World Outreach Center, a fundamentalist church in Gainesville, Fla., whose membership is believed to number around 50 families. For years, he has tried to gain a wider audience in the competitive market of conservative ministry by promoting his message that "Islam is of the devil." That's also the title of a book Jones has written, and it was the slogan that adorned T-shirts worn to school by two children of his congregants, resulting in their being sent home for dress-code violations. Still, the numbers are telling: Even among conservative Evangelical pastors, Terry Jones is a relative nobody.
But you'd never have known it this week, when thousands of demonstrators in Afghanistan and Indonesia took to the streets to denounce the planned bonfire and General David Petraeus took time out from running the war in Afghanistan to warn that the event would endanger U.S. troops overseas. Jones hasn't even struck a match and suddenly the national and world media is desperate to hear from the pastor.
In the face of Petraeus' plea for the good of overseas U.S. troops, Jones was defiant. "We plan to continue," he declared, although he promised to pray about the matter. Clearly, the man is milking his 15 minutes of notoriety earned by simply threatening a cheap backyard provocation.
Johnny Rotten would approve. A founding father of punk rock, Rotten (real name: John Lydon) would be the first to admit that nothing succeeds like a well-timed provocation that grabs the imagination of the media. Rotten's band, the Sex Pistols, played three-chord songs with more energy than craft, but their willingness to break taboos by publicly insulting the Queen of England in song and gesture created a media panic that made Rotten a global celebrity.
On a grander and more deadly scale, Osama bin Laden too has always understood the value of a well-timed provocation. He headed a small band of Arab volunteers who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan with the support of the U.S. and its Arab allies, then were cast into the wilderness of Sudan until the Taliban came to power and gave them a home. Bin Laden and his band hoped to lead a rebellion across the Muslim world to cast out U.S.-backed regimes and put his allies in power. Even when bin Laden gathered his World Islamic Front in the backwater of Afghanistan in 1998 and issued a call to "jihad against Jews and Crusaders," he only ever commanded a couple hundred men, and wielded little power to alter the political order against which he railed. (Rival Islamist players like Hizballah and Hamas, by contrast, had substantial numbers of men under arms, a national cause and a very local enemy.) Despite his geopolitical ambitions, by measure of his strategic significance, bin Laden was a relative nobody.