Koran Burning Pastor: How His Stunt Could Harm the U.S.

After his juvenile stunt led to mobs that killed several U.N. workers, Pastor Terry Jones is insisting he didn't mean for his actions to cause any harm. But this kind of "reluctant" extremism is increasingly becoming America's default excuse.

Pastor Terry Jones is insisting he didn't mean for his actions to cause any harm. But The Daily Beast's John Avlon says this kind of "reluctant" extremism is increasingly becoming America's default excuse. Plus, inside Terry Jones' church.

The politics of incitement played out on the world stage Friday, echoing from a crazed Gainesville pastor to a U.N. mission in Afghanistan overrun by fanatics who killed a dozen workers, beheading two of them.

Nevermind that the Nepalese and European U.N. workers killed in Mazar-i-Sharif had likely never heard that Terry Jones followed through with threats he made six months ago to burn a Koran at his obscure Florida church on March 20—most Americans hadn’t either.

After dominating world headlines last September with the proposed stunt—which surfed off the protests surrounding the Park51 Islamic center two blocks from ground zero on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—Jones had promised, “We will definitely not burn the Koran… Not today, not ever."

But carnival-barker hate-mongers love attention, and Terry Jones reversed his pledge when he started to feel like maybe the world wasn’t hanging on every pronouncement that emanated from his ironically named “Dove World Outreach” church. And so, on March 20, he held a mock trial for the Koran in front of 30 parishioners.

This kangaroo court had a "prosecutor" making the case for condemning Islam, squaring off with a "defense" "lawyer"—one of many sentences on the table was book-burning. The U.S. media wisely ignored the idiotic inflammatory spectacle. But there was a videocamera present, and Jones uploaded his footage to the Internet for the world to see.

As of Friday, only 1,500 people had watched it, but it was already becoming big news in Afghanistan and the Islamic world. The State Department took care to release a statement condemning the book-burning last week, but after prominent Afghan imams made it a centerpiece of their Friday services, the mob was darkly inspired and took to the streets, encouraged by the Taliban.

It captures a strain of extremism we’ve been increasingly seeing: radical action as a reluctant obligation, an expression of fidelity to deeper principles.

This explosion of violence comes at a time when the U.S. is at war in three Muslim countries and our enemies—terrorists and dictators alike—try to invoke Islam as a way of painting Americans as infidels. Terry Jones perfectly plays into their hands. The incident will be used by our enemies as a way to try and redirect the Arab Spring uprisings’ anger toward the U.S.

It is a high-cost stunt. And the fact that it stands at the awkward intersection of constitutionally protected free speech and demagogic book-burning shouldn’t distract us from the real-world impact of Terry Jones’ ignorance. Sure, it's worth reminding people that Jones could have burned a Bible on his grounds and no one would have been murdered in retaliation. But condemning him is not the same thing as caving to the threats of Sharia law.

Remember when that notorious squish, General David Petraeus, released a statement last September warning against Jones’ first flirtation with burning the Koran? “Images of the burning of a Koran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan—and around the world—to inflame public opinion and incite violence,” Petraeus said. “Such images could, in fact, be used as were the photos from [Abu Ghraib]. And this would, again, put our troops and civilians in jeopardy and undermine our efforts to accomplish the critical mission here in Afghanistan." That’s precisely what is happening. The Taliban are encouraging the ugliness by reportedly handing out weapons in crowds as violent protests enter their second day.

Now Terry Jones is shedding crocodile tears, saying he is "devastated" by the violence, but it was entirely predictable. At the time of the book-burning, he also played sober and solemn, saying: “It is not that we burn the Koran with some type of vindictive motive… We do not even burn it with great pleasure or any pleasure at all. We burn it because we feel a deep obligation to stay with the court system of America. The court system of America does not allow convicted criminals to go free. And that is why we feel obligated to do this.”

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This bit of self-delusion deserves extra scrutiny because it captures a strain of extremism we’ve been increasingly seeing: radical action as a reluctant obligation, an expression of fidelity to deeper principles. The fact that Jones is invoking the courts—when his show-trial stunt took place in a near-empty church and the "convicted criminal" is a book—is one sign of the psychosis at work. Bad craziness takes great pains to present itself as misunderstood patriotism these days. Playing the victim card will not be far behind.

But it is a sign of our times that the reverberations of Terry Jones’ brand of crazy can reach across the world and translate to real violence. It is a reason why extremists’ statements cannot be simply ignored in the hopes that they will go away on their own accord.

Leon Dische Backer: How the Mad Pastor Creeped BackThe fact that Jones’ greatest enablers in terms of getting his message out included the Taliban is also illuminating—extremists encourage each other, they fuel the cycle of incitement and serve as powerful recruiting tools. Islamist radicals want their followers to believe that Jones’ actions are indicative of all Americans, and the Terry Joneses of the world see the murders as evidence of Islam’s inherent violence—hate, ignorance and intolerance begets more of the same. Good people of all faiths and nationalities can get caught in the crossfire between the extremes.

John Avlon's most recent book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.