For those of you who do not know, I live in Gainesville, Florida, a college town in Northeast Florida with lots of wonderful things – like a great bunch of colleagues, a great bunch of graduate students, weather to write home about, and a (frequently) rocking football team. It is (largely) a fairly politically progressive place, but there’s still good country music – a great home to mix my Southern roots and lefty-academic tendencies. It is also, however, the place where the “Qu’ran burning” almost happened, and (thankfully) didn’t. But that didn’t stop it from causing deaths all the way around the world in Afghanistan.
For those of you who missed this story, Dove World Outreach Center (linked here to their Wikipedia page because their website host took down their site), is a small (about 50 members in a town of more than 100,000) non-denominational christian church in Gainesville. They recently made the global news, but had been on the local radar for a while, because their children wore shirts that said “Islam is the Devil” to Gainesville public schools, prompting school uniform legislation. It is a very small and fringe group, and has been very disruptive locally to a community that is actually quite decent about tolerance and diversity.
The lead pastor at Dove (not linked here because he seems to like the attention) Terry Jones announced in late July that Dove would be burning copies of the Qu’ran on September 11, 2010, vaguely describing it as in protest of the so-called “Ground Zero” mosque (which is, of course, not at “Ground Zero”). After receiving negative national and international media attention, and being condemned by figures as diverse as President Obama, Angelina Jolie, and the President and Faculty of the University of Florida, Jones and Dove World backed off their plan at the last minute and indeed burnt no books.
Those of us who got wind of the cancellation in the 48 hours leading up to the scheduled burning breathed a big sigh of relief, knowing that such an event would be devastating, whatever one’s political persuasion – given the risks it would pose to Americans at home and abroad, and the message it would send to Islamic communities in Gainesville and around the world. At least I had been terrified that many innocent people would die over the burning, if it happened, both in Gainesville and around the world. I assumed that the cancellation of the burning would stop that violence.
But it happened too late for some people in Afghanistan. Protesters there had come out to show the government, which many of them saw as too pro-Western or pro-American, that supporting and taking the support of a state that would allow something as disrespectful as burning the Qu’ran would not be tolerated, and that a democratic Afghanistan would have to deal seriously with these issues. The news that the burning had been cancelled did not travel quickly enough, and the protests continued into Sunday in Afghanistan. The protesters were apparently displaying “hostile intent” in their attempts to occupy and sit-in at a local government building, and were fired on by Afghan troops.
Not knowing what happened there, I don’t want to get into a “he said, he said” discussion of Afghan military police violence and insurgent threats – but what I do know is that some people in Gainesville, Florida are at least partly responsible for the deaths of some people in Afghanistan, who remain unnamed in Western news coverage. As citizens of the United States (or even other Western countries), we often convince ourselves that our individual political decisions do not affect how the world works, or other people that we don’t know across that world. Terry Jones and Dove World showed that’s not true – a couple of (fringe) people’s politics affected a lot of people’s lives, and ended (at least) two of them. The local is global, it seems; and the global is local. What we do with that, as scholars and as activists, seems to remain an open question. I, for one, think that the first priority should be making as aggressive statements about tolerance and respect as some make about intolerance and disrespect.