No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.
-H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy, 1948
If the Reverend Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida has read the great Mencken, he must wonder how he became the first American to defy the Bard of Baltimore’s observation. His Koran-burning stunt should have been a winner. Any country that regards Fox News as a sober reporter of world affairs is ripe for chicanery of any sort. Yet the public didn’t buy it. For the first time in recorded history, someone underestimated the intelligence of the plain people and lost. Sometimes I’m proud of my countrymen, and this is such a time. Jones went too far, and everyone from the president to the privates knew it. It was a provocative action that cost lives in Afghanistan, where NATO troops fired on demonstrators, and Iraq, where fanatics shot the guards at the Anglican church, before any books were torched.
Jones launched his anti-Muslim campaign a year ago by posting a sign outside modest church declaring, “Islam is of the Devil.” Half of his one hundred congregants immediately drifted away. Some may have gone to other Christian sects, turned atheist or, for all I know, become Muslim. With fifty fewer coins on the plate each Sunday, it cannot be easy in these hard times for the pastor to provide for himself and his family. Rather than abandon his costly campaign, Jones employed the truly bad poker player’s strategy of doubling his bet on bad cards. His now famous call for a mass burning of books aroused the Muslim world, which had already endured the desecration of Korans by American torturers in prisons, but failed to galvanize any support in the United States. Jones said the idea originated with God, but he may have heard the call of those empty collection plates every Sunday. He certainly garnered world attention. Not many obscure Florida evangelical pastors receive calls from the Secretary of Defense, visits from the FBI and appeals from the State Department, Interpol, General Petraeus and the leaders of most of the world’s governments, churches and mosques.
As the Jones crusade got rolling, television cameras outside his church outnumbered the worshipers inside. His profile was raised. A man who was unknown even in little Gainesville was suddenly a world figure. Attention, though, is not support. Just as he was ready to undertake the Big Book Burning, he called it off. Rather, he “suspended” it. His explanation, that the putative builders of a mosque in New York near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center had agreed to move their project elsewhere, did not hold water.
I don’t much like burning flags and books, whether the book be the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads or The Satanic Verses. The Vandals and the Nazis, gave the practice a bad name. While not approving such idiocy, I would not prevent it. If you want to burn a book or Old Glory, it’s your right – at least in the United States of America. It’s also your right to castrate yourself.
The Reverend Jones, like that other Reverend Jones who dispensed fortified Kool-Aid to his followers in Guyana, may not be entirely sane. Having demonized Muslims and their religion, he announced his decision to delay the Big Blaze with a Muslim cleric standing beside him. If that Imam was of a devilish religion, what was Jones doing with him? When some Muslims in Baghdad vented their anger on Baghdad Christians by killing Anglican church guards, Jones stated, “It is time for us to join together in the western world, in the Muslim and Christian world, to condemn such acts.” Either “Islam is of the Devil,” as he originally stated, or it isn’t, whatever that means. When his campaign turned bloody, as everyone from Plato to General Sherman could have told him it would, he suddenly became Mahatma Gandhi. Where are the fire and brimstone of yesteryear, when Africans, Catholics, Jews and, if there had been any handy, Muslims were lynched beside fiery crosses?
The latter-day Father Coughlin suddenly became the white Nelson Mandela when he urged, “We would right now ask no one to burn Korans. We are absolutely strong on that. It is not the time to do it.” Uh, when is the right time? If not the ninth anniversary of 9/11, the tenth? Will Terry put the world through this again? If he does, will we have the sense to ignore him? He will merit attention, but of the psychiatric variety.
Any book worth burning is probably worth reading, and I predict Koran sales in America will take off. If you want my advice, which you probably don’t, try the translation by Marmaduke Pickthall. Pickthall, an English traveler who wrote the beautiful Oriental Encounters: Palestine and Syria, 1894-1896, converted to Islam and produced a poetic translation of the seventh century holy book. (I was given a copy of Pickthall’s translation by Fawzi al Ghussein in April 1986, a few days after Ronald Reagan used the US Air Force to murder his seventeen year old granddaughter, Ra’fat, and many other civilians in Tripoli, Libya.) Pickthall, like that other Muslim convert, Muhammad Asad (born Leopold Weiss in 1900), found great consolation and wisdom in the Koran. So do millions of other people throughout the world, and I hope they won’t hold it against the Christians in their midst if a loony preacher in Florida lost his way.