So is Saturday’s planned Quran-burning event happening, or isn’t it? For weeks, Florida pastor Terry Jones has been making headlines by promising to mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11 by burning Qurans at his tiny church in Gainsville. On Thursday, several news outlets reported that the event had been cancelled after Jones had secured a promise that the Park51 Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero would be moved. But Park51 leaders have unwaveringly denied making any such deal, and Jones has gone back and forth over whether his plans are back on as a result.
This morning, he told ABC’s Good Morning America that as of then, he was not planning to burn the Quran tomorrow. Throughout the segment, ABC ran the misleading phrase “Ground Zero Mosque” across the screen–a telling reminder of how Jones’ antics became international news in the first place.
Everyone from the Pope to Sarah Palin has tried to dissuade Jones from going forward with the plan. Most recently, President Obama called the whole thing a “stunt” that would only encourage anti-American violence; it’ll also encourage more of the anti-Muslim extremism that’s become a trend this summer. Jones had remained steadfast in his plans until Thursday, when he stood outside of his church with Muhammad Musri, the president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, and announced a new deal. Mursi, he said, had promised him that the New York Muslim center would be moved.
Hours later, once it was clear no such deal existed, Jones angrily told the media that Mursi “clearly lied to us.”
Jones continued: “We assumed what the imam said was true. Now, we’re in a state of limbo and we have to rethink our position,” Jones said Thursday evening, according to CNN. “We are rethinking our position. We are reconsidering, but we’d like to think what the imam said was true. We’re a little back to square one. We hope this thing works out.”
For his part, Mursi maintains that he had only agreed to fly out to New York with Jones and meet with the leaders overlooking plans to build the new Muslim center in lower Manhattan.
The controversy over Park51 has been the subject of intense national debate. On Thursday, even billionaire Donald Trump entered the fray, offering to buy out a major investor in the real estate partnership that controls the site. Trump explained his motives in a letter released by his publicist:
I am making this offer as a resident of New York and citizen of the United States, not because I think the location is a spectacular one (because it is not), but because it will end a very serious, inflammatory, and highly divisive situation that is destined, in my opinion, to only get worse.
So far the investor, Hisham Elzanaty, has refused.
Still, the bigger question is how an obscure pastor with a tiny congregation managed to grab national headlines in the first place. Jones’ church, the Dove World Outreach Center, boasts a membership of less than 50 people and is independent of any denomination, though it follows the Pentecostal tradition. He’s known for posting signs that Islam is the devil’s religion and claims that it’s within his constitutional right to publicly set fire to one of the world’s most popular holy texts.
Yet over the past week, some of the world’s most powerful voices have had to respond to Jones’s loony antics. The Pope denounced the plan, along with the U.S. general in Afghanistan, the White House and the State Department. Even Sarah Palin announced that it was a bad idea, calling the whole thing “insensitive and un-American.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates called Jones to urge better sense.
It seems like under any ordinary circumstances, a plan like Jones’ would easily be dismissed as deliberately inflammatory and unworthy of our attention. But, of course, these aren’t ordinary circumstances. It’s an election year, and the controversy over Park51 has allowed pundits and politicians to bash Muslims for weeks in an effort to draw clear ideological lines for voters. The furor has has quickly turned violent and, suddenly, a plainly fringe figure with plainly extreme ideas is leading the world around by the nose.
So instead of tackling worthy election issues, like the economy and jobs, we’re left bickering over New York City’s most popular real estate dispute. Jones’ plan was no doubt awful, and it’s led to several impassioned, powerful defenses of religious freedom. But the fact that it’s even news in the first place is a sad testament to how deep our country’s political swamp has become.