When I first heard the news that Rev. Terry Jones, a minister at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. was planning a “Burn the Qur’an Day” on September 11, I wondered if I had been transported back in time several centuries.
When I checked the history of book burning, I discovered that it is long and nefarious -- dating back to early Chinese emperors who set fire to works of philosophy that did not comply with state dogma. It includes the destruction of the magnificent ancient library of Alexandria, many burnings of the Torah and Talmud, and, at the time of the Reformation, Protestants burning Catholic books and Catholics burning Protestant books. In fact, the Spanish Inquisition was an equal opportunity arsonist; inquisitors burned Protestant books, Jewish books and even the Qur’an itself. In recent times, the Nazis conducted public book burnings that included the works of many Jewish intellectuals.
All these burnings had much in common: they were acts of gross intolerance and stupidity -- born out of fear and intending to spread fear. Historical book burners thought they were stamping out heresies or threatening ideas in their respective societies. And they wanted to frighten and silence anyone who harbored even a small independent thought or sympathy for the contents of the books.
Rev. Terry Jones, whose congregation numbers about 50 people, stands squarely in this tradition of intolerance, stupidity and fear-mongering. But as reprehensible as this action is in itself, Jones is not operating in ancient China or medieval Europe. He made his announcement in the age of the internet and mass communications. So it is not surprising that it has sparked large protests in places like Jakarta and Kabul.
No less a figure than Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has warned that the protest could “endanger troops and…the overall effort in Afghanistan.” And it will surely have a grossly negative impact on our relations with the Muslim world generally.
And that’s why I find the name of this church in Gainesville ironic. The Dove World Outreach Center? The symbol of a dove usually stands for peace. A casual reading of this name might lead one to assume that this church wants to spread peace throughout the world. This action does precisely the opposite.
And it is surely an un-American act. Although the first amendment protects this pastor’s right to do this deed, it violates another part of that same amendment: religious freedom and religious tolerance. This act is nothing less than an affront to our ideals as a nation and an affront to the traditions of Christianity itself.
But perhaps it is most important to recall at this time the words of the Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine almost two centuries ago. In a theatre piece he wrote called "Almansor" he said simply, "Those who begin by burning books will end by burning people.” He might have been predicting the history of his own Jewish people, but he was addressing the Inquisition's burning of the Qur’an. We are certainly not at that point in the United States, but this minister is surely playing with fire -- whether he carries through with his threat or not.
It’s time he read his own New Testament: “Love one another as I have loved you.”