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How Koran burning in Florida could play in the Muslim world

The planned Koran burning in Florida could provoke a response in the Muslim world like that in 2006 to a Danish cartoon of the prophet Mohammad. A correspondent remembers the scene in Kabul at that time.

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / September 9, 2010

A member of the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir carries a Koran during a protest in Makassar, Indonesia on September 4. Hundreds of members from the Islamic group condemned a Florida church's plans to hold a 'Koran burning' on September 11.

Yusuf Ahmad/Reuters

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Johannesburg, South Africa

A few years ago, a Danish cartoonist named Kurt Westergaard drew a picture of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb sticking out of his turban. As a journalist, I supported – in theory – his freedom of expression without reservation.

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A democratic society should support Mr. Westergaard’s right to provoke thought, laughter, or outrage – and to express his own outrage about the misuse of religion by political extremists.

But as I have witnessed, from South Africa to Afghanistan, religious provocation can have explosive power and far-reaching impact.

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For Afghans, who may have initially embraced the West's intervention to oust the Taliban, Westergaard’s cartoon (which was initially ignored when it was published in 2005, but then resurfaced in 2006) came like a sucker punch from a (once) trusted friend.

Perhaps the Taliban were right about Western culture, I heard some Afghans say at the street protests that sprung up across the snowy streets of Kabul following the cartoon controversy. Perhaps we can’t really be friends with the West.

On Sept. 11, the Rev. Terry Jones, a pastor from a small Florida church, says he will carry out his planned Koran burning. If Reverend Jones actually goes through with his plan, it will likely be followed by yet another wave of protests in the Muslim world. But, even more important, it could deepen the sense of doom for efforts to bridge the gap between East and West, between Islam and Christianity.

If nothing else, Jones has given us an object lesson. One person can indeed make a difference.

Westerners, in general, have a blind spot in this debate.

For most Christians, there are few social taboos or religious rules that ban the portrayal of their revered prophet – in the spirit of “thou shalt have no graven images." Jesus, for instance, is often portrayed reverently in church and irreverently in the pages of The New Yorker.

In the West, many simply can’t understand why Muslims get so upset when their prophet gets similar treatment. When Muslims try to explain their reasoning, Westerners often close off the debate with a simple “get over it.”

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