A story quickly moving up the news agenda in recent days is how a small church in Florida plans to burn copies of the Koran on the ninth anniversary of 9/11. The church's pastor maintains the event is designed as a protest against extreme Islam (rather than Islam as a whole), as well as drawing attention to how the U.S. is in danger of appeasing extremists within its own borders. However, the pastor and church have come under intense pressure to cancel the event, notably from world leaders and other high profile figures, but at a press conference yesterday the church maintained the event would go ahead as planned.
This is a fascinating story because it tells us all sorts of things - both explicit and implicit - about the world we live in. First, it demonstrates the power of 24-hour rolling news which has ensured pretty well everyone across the globe knows about it, together with how capturing the media's attention has in itself now become a valuable form of currency which if exploited efficiently through a stunt can command massive media attention. Thus, however you view them, a small, relatively insignificant group has played the media card masterfully, capturing media attention across the world. Ironically, many of the world leaders who condemn the proposed burning ceremony have only themselves to blame, contributing by their involvement in pushing the story to the very top of the news agenda. After all, when the likes of President Obama, Angela Merkel, Tony Blair, the Secretary General of the UN, and even the Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, condemn the proposed ceremony, describing it as abhorrent and urging for it to be cancelled, it is inevitable the rest of us wil hear about it pretty quickly.
Reactions to the burning event also tells us a great deal about Western society, the Islamic world, and the relationship between the two. For its part, few doubt that if the burning of copies of the Koran goes ahead there will be a huge conflagration across the Islamic world, including demonstrations, rallies, and inevitably violence and intense hatred towards the West. A Taliban spokesman has already opined (somewhat unsophisticatedly) that if it goes ahead it will prove the entire West is out to get Islam. Extreme Muslims seem incapable of understanding the concept of free speech, that the views and actions (providing they are legal) of individuals and groups across Western society does not necessarily equate to such views being replicated or endorsed across Western society as a whole. Meanwhile, it is a bit rich for some Islamists to get wound up over this issue when, for example, whole local Christian communities have been slaughtered in countries such as Pakistan or northern Nigeria at the hands of extreme Muslims without so much as a whisper of protest from within their own circles. For their part, those moderate Muslims who are (completely understandably) deeply offended about being tarred with the same brush as the extremists within their midsts might want to take some time to reciprocate, recognising that the actions and views of a small church in Florida do not necessarily reflect the views of Christians as a whole, and certainly not Western society in toto.
As far as the West is concerned, the plan to burn copies of the Koran (or rather, reactions to it) tells us quite a lot about Western society, together with its relationship with the wider Islamic world. First (and I never really thought, as an Englishman, I'd say this), it shows how the U.S. has overtaken the U.K. as a champion of free speech. Quite simply, such an event would not now ever be permitted to take place here; the authorities would find some way of banning it somehow. Not that I want Britain necessarily to become synonymous with burning different religions' sacred literature, but we've come a long way from freedom of speech to a top-down society which quite frankly seeks to control the very things we say, and indeed even think. Actually, they're trying very hard to stop it in the U.S. too, with the pressure upon the church becoming, arguably, unbearable (by the way, I'm not convinced the burning of copies of the Koran will actually go ahead). But nominally at least the U.S. constitution permits such a demonstration of free speech, and despite intense pressure from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, U.S. commander of forces in Afghanistan General Petraeus, and today even President Obama himself, if the event is called off it will ultimately be the church and pastor who decide.
But purported North American commitment to free speech aside, the fact that such leading American officials, together with condemnation by various world leaders, tells us something else. It tells us about the intense fear of Islamic radicalism within the West and the perceived damage it is capable of causing. For example, General Petraeus has said if the burning goes ahead it will put American soldiers' lives in Afghanistan in mortal danger (though I'm not sure this argument works particularly well, as any foreign soldier in Afghanistan is a target already). Meanwhile, Western politicians fear some of the fallout experienced by the Danish government over the cartoon protests some time ago. They also fear losing trade with the Islamic world, as well as the breakdown of fragile alliances with Islamic countries. I am quite sure, too, they fear uprisings among the substantial Islamic communities across countries in Europe and elsewhere. Ironically, Western Muslims, many of whom have experienced their own Enlightenment in some form or other, while distressed and dismayed by the proposed burning of the Koran, are probably more likely to respond to the event (if it goes ahead) pragmatically and moderately than Western leaders give them credit. Just yesterday I listened to an educated U.S.Muslim leader who expressed his views far more eloquently and reasonably than some I've heard on the other side of the debate.
But it is the feared backlash in places like the Middle East and Pakistan which the press is preparing to report widely, together with the fact that Western leaders rarely respond to the suffering of Christians in some Muslim lands which is, I think, why this issue is capturing the attention of some Christians. They feel let down when the Islamic world defends its own and responds vociferously and even violently to, for example, cartoons of Mohammed, and now the burning of the Koran, while Christians in some of the countries where these protests will take place suffer utter misery, suffering and persecution, and even death because of their faith, yet we rarely hear Western voices spoken out on their behalf. I am not convinced all Christians critical of Islam are even necessarily driven solely by an anti-Islamic agenda, but rather it is a partial reaction to Western liberal elitism which is inherently anti-Christian and pro-Islamic. Whether banning Christmas at the town hall level or rewarding Islamic extremism by brushing any talk of radicalism under the carpet, it is moderate Muslims who suffer the consequences, blamed for the rise in Islamic extremism while Christians experience official state prejudice. In short, the Islamists are not the only ones to blame for negative stereotypes of Western Muslims; some of our secular leaders also have a lot to answer for, using Islam to curb the historically influential societal role of Christianity and then laying the blame elsewhere. So often, nonplussed Muslims are blamed for secularised "Winterfest" denials of Christmas when the real culprit is the local city or town council. Aguably, such dismay expressed by some Christians towards their faith is what is partially driving the Florida church and pastor in question. Alternatively, if this is an unashamed, publicity-seeking stunt, it is such dismay which drives a begrudging, if somewhat embarassed support from some Christians, many of whom are angry at Western prejudice towards their fellow believers, as well as the plight of Christians at the hands of Islamists in some Muslim lands.
Which leads me to my final point, one final thing I believe the plan to burn copies of the Koran tells us. I am a passionate believer in free speech and I get rather irritated at bullies telling us what we can or can't say. People insult Christianity and the Lord Jesus Christ all the time, which we have simply learned to accept and get on with our lives. I just wish it was a level playing field, and free speech went both ways. But it doesn't, of course, with Christians seen as fair game. After all, Jesus details how we will inevitably be reviled and hated for His namesake, while urging us to turn the other cheek (Muslim sensitivies, on the other hand, are treated with kid gloves because no one wants to attract the ire of a radicalised Islamist).
Unfortunately, some Christians today have forgotten Jesus' instructions on this matter, instead drawing upon a worldy mentality of direct action and "standing up for our rights". Unfortunately, not heeding the Lord's words causes all manner of problems. Consider how turning the other cheek is a witness to those who persecute us. Moreover, when we resist natural human impulses to stand up for our rights, seek venegeance and demonstrate anger, and instead obey Jesus' instructions, it strongly influences how people perceive Christians. In this particular instance, the misconceived action of the pastor and his congregation has influenced how many people across the world view Christians (it didn't help to see his handgun on his desk next to his Bible). But perhaps particularly importantly, it puts the lives of Christians in Muslim lands at risk, while it inevitably makes the task of evangelising and sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Muslim lands that much more difficult. After all, it is disrespectful and deeply and unnecessarily offends everyday Muslims who need to hear the Gospel. Why offend unnecessarily? Naturally, we all struggle with the flesh, we become indignant with the injustices we see against fellow Christians in some lands. But the Christian way, as taught to us by our Lord, is very different from a typically human approach. Indeed, some will perceive it as weakness (which indeed is why some Christian communities suffer dreadful persecution), but the fact is others will be massively affected by our witnes and come to a true and saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Thus, I am not convinced Saturday's planned event contributes to that goal.
Sky is just now reporting that the pastor at the centre of the storm may halt the burning ceremony if asked personally by President Obama to do so. As stated above, I wasn't convinced this would go ahead. Tricky for Obama, though. He will become the inevitable target of those for whom free speech is paramount. Doesn't help that he defended the 9/11 mosque project or that a large segment of the U.S. population remains convinced he is a crypto-Muslim.