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.

Yusuf Ahmad/Reuters
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.
Mohammed Ameen/Reuters
An Iraqi policeman distributes the holy Koran between security checkpoints at al-Firdous square in Baghdad September 9. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged the United States on Thursday to prevent the American pastor of an obscure Christian church from burning copies of the Koran in commemoration of Sep. 11 attacks.

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.

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.

WATCH VIDEO: Build a 'mosque' near ground zero?

RELATED: 11 countries speaking out against Koran burning in Florida

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.”

Jones is out of step with the religious teachings of Christianity – a point underlined by the concerted effort of evangelical church leaders to get him to back down from his Koran burning plan. But this point will largely be lost on the likely protesters across the Islamic world. Unfortunately for many, Jones will become as defining a figure of Christianity as Osama bin Laden is of Islam.

All over the world, explaining that the acts of lone individuals do not represent the majority of any given country becomes more and more difficult. How to explain to Westerners that flag-burning protesters in Kabul don't represent the complexity of feelings among Afghan Muslims? How to explain that the vast majority of Afghan Muslims don’t adhere to the radical ideology of Mr. bin Laden and instead practice a tolerant branch of Sufi Islam that embraces Jesus as an equal with other prophets? How to explain that the only people who still believe in the "clash of civilizations" are Islamist radicals like bin Laden?

Before I left Kabul several years ago, I watched news clips of the street protests in Kabul over the cartoon controversy. Danish flags were being burned in a country that had never before seen the Danish flag. Across the country, aid workers were clustering inside their compounds, suspending the work of building schools and clinics and bracing for the possibility that those schools and clinics (and indeed their own lives) may now be in danger.

On the plane home, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching the beginning of the end of a friendship.

This week, America’s commander on the front lines of Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, criticized the planned Koran burning. He said it would endanger US troops in the field, the US mission in Afghanistan, and efforts around the world. He could probably add US diplomats, Peace Corps workers, and American aid workers.

I hope that won't be the case. As Jones prepares to ignite Muslim holy books in Florida this weekend, perhaps we can all take solace in the fact that millions more independent thinkers are putting their Bibles and Korans to their intended purpose: to make the world a better place.

Scott Baldauf was the Monitor's South Asia bureau chief from 2001 until 2006, and is now the Monitor's bureau chief in Johannesburg.

WATCH VIDEO: Build a 'mosque' near ground zero?

RELATED: 11 countries speaking out against Koran burning in Florida

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