Leaders from across the globe who had never heard of the Rev. Terry Jones before last week are speaking out against the small-time Florida pastor creating a big stir with his plan to burn Korans on Sept. 11.
The torrent of publicity washing over Reverend Jones and his self-declared "International Burn a Koran Day," with a 200-Koran bonfire outside his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., is the latest reminder of how the Internet and the gaping maw of the 24-hour news cycle can turn minor events into global issues.
President Obama, Afghanistan war chief Gen. David Petraeus, and Pope Benedict XVI have all spoken out against Jones, who was expelled from an evangelical congregation he founded in Cologne, Germany, by parishioners angry over his hate-filled sermons and what some have told reporters were his demands for "blind obedience."
"Anyone who even thought of such a despicable act must be suffering from a diseased mind and a sickly soul,” he said in a statement. The planned Koran burning will "cause irreparable damage to interfaith harmony and also to world peace."
On President Zardari's last point, there's a growing body of evidence to suggest he may be wrong.
Part of the reason Jones has gotten so much attention is because of the violent reaction to a Danish newspaper publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005. Little noticed on the day of publication, a storm of international publicity and vituperation led to violent protests and deaths in some Muslim countries months later.
The question of desecrating the Koran is, religiously, more offensive to Muslims than depictions of the prophet. So it's not surprising that world leaders are trying to get out ahead of the Jones story to forestall a narrative that feeds into the "clash of civilizations" mindset, which is dear to extremists in both the Muslim and Christian worlds.
In Al Qaeda's and its fellow travelers' worldview, Christianity and the West are implacably hostile toward Islam and so, the argument goes, the only option is to take up arms and wage war.
In anti-Islamic circles in the US and elsewhere, Islam is painted as fundamentally violent. Their argument goes that the spread of that faith – in any of its multiple forms – should be opposed. Jones appears to be in this camp, as one of his favorite slogans is "Islam is of the devil."
Both sides will gain from this controversy. If some Muslims react violently to a Koran burning, many will paint all Muslims as being violent.
But it appears that all of the talking by world leaders against the planned Koran burning is muting the potential wider Muslim reaction.
Republika newspaper in Jakarta, a national daily with ties to Indonesia's modernist Muslim movement, wrote Thursday that Jones's church is an "isolated group far from the mainstream of American society."
That's the message the Obama administration has been trying to spread – both about Jones's plan and about opposition to the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque two blocks from ground zero.
The "burn a Koran" plan started when Jones created a Facebook page in July. Some of its first national exposure seems to have followed a press release from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which called on Muslims to "Share a Quran" during Ramadan, which ends Friday, to counter his effort.
The Facebook page itself has about 12,000 followers, but to judge by the comments left there, many have signed up simply to post criticism of Jones's plan. A number of other Facebook groups have been started in opposition, and have a number of comments against Jones that appear to be from US citizens.
CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper says the group felt compelled to respond because of what it sees as rising hostility toward Islam in America.
"Randall Terry tried something like this a few years ago but was more or less ignored," says Mr. Hooper, referring to the antiabortion activist and conservative politician. "I think the difference this time is that it comes amid this rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in our society, so we didn’t view this as some isolated crackpot, but as a symptom of something that needs to be addressed."
Asked if the media coverage has done more harm than good, Hooper says his group has been generally pleased with the efforts of the national press and doesn't think irreparable harm is being done to America's international image.
"It depends on the type of coverage," he says. "If it's covered as a tiny extremist sect seeking to get cheap publicity that is rejected by the mainstream of society, that might help our nation's image. But if this were somehow perceived as a reflection of our society, then that would harm us. I think it’s starting to trend more toward putting it into context."