I was in Nottingham, England, when evangelical minister Terry Jones and the Dove World Outreach Center of Gainesville, Florida, seized control of the global media stage by soaking a Koran in kerosene and setting it aflame. This occurred after a so-called “trial” of Islam for being “of the Devil.” The Koran was “found guilty and a copy was burned.” With hubristic conflation of his church and our state—as well as of magic and legality—Jones proclaimed, “The court system of America does not allow convicted criminals to go free. And that is why we feel obligated to do this.”
Pastor Jones also felt obligated to broadcast the incineration online. As his deeds flashed around the globe, they were mirrored in fundamentalist kind, particularly in Afghanistan, where the population was simmering from another American drone killing another group of children and, in particular, the pending trials of twelve American soldiers for the “sport” killing of random civilians—behavior that included mutilation, dismemberment and the retention of body parts as souvenirs. Riots broke out, and in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the local UN compound became the object of outrage. Twelve staff were killed.
At more or less the same time Pastor Jones was engaging in his mischief in Florida, I was on the edge of Sherwood Forest, wandering about the oldest pub in Britain, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem. It purportedly dates to 1189, the year Richard the Lionheart was crowned and promptly joined the Third Crusade. The pub was supposedly a hangout for soldiers who gathered before their quest to retake the Holy Land from Muslim “infidels.” The Third Crusade, like those before and after, resulted in a bloodbath. The siege of the city of Acre alone led to the slaughter of nearly 3,000 Muslim captives, many of whom were said to have been disemboweled in search of swallowed gemstones. This was also the period during which the Hashshashin—from which the word “assassin” is derived—refined the arts of sabotage, infiltration and murder for hire. The Hashshashin, a small, secretive cult of Persian warriors, conducted their own brand of unconventional, self-interested warfare against ruling Muslim caliphates as well as invading crusaders. Much like Al Qaeda today, they played both sides against the middle, often murdering for hire.
So there I stood on a sandstone cliff of England’s fair Midlands, my feet planted in the Middle Ages, my iBrain iPadded with tweets about the latest “only in America” goings-on.
As it turned out, Pastor Jones (perhaps not coincidentally a high school classmate of Rush Limbaugh) had been personally and publicly begged not to pursue what he dubbed “International Burn a Koran Day” by no lesser luminaries than General Petraeus, Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defense Gates, President Obama and even Sarah Palin. To no avail; Jones—like the Westboro Baptist Church, with which the Dove Center sometimes joins league—presses on unhindered either by compassion or the courts. Such are the complexities of free speech in a socially networked world.