WASHINGTON – The old adage that time heals all wounds is apparently far from the truth in the United States as it prepares to mark the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a momentous event that still traumatizes and inflames Americans like few others in the country’s history.
This year there’s more anger than sorrow _ a small Florida church’s intention to burn copies of Islam’s holiest text, the Qur’an, on Saturday’s 9-11 anniversary has injected red-hot political and emotional elements to the anniversary while sparking international outrage against the church’s pastor, Terry Jones.
His planned stunt has marred an occasion usually marked with solemnity and quiet reflections throughout the United States, although the ongoing debate raging about plans to construct a mosque near the former site of New York’s World Trade Center has possibly ignited anti-Muslim passions among those who view all Muslims, not just extremists, as hating Americans.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that “a third of the country now believes that mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims, while 54 per cent see the religion as peaceful.” Two-thirds also object to the mosque being built so close to what’s known as Ground Zero, a now-sacred spot in lower Manhattan where almost 3,000 people died on a sunny September morning nine years ago.
U.S. President Barack Obama weighed in himself on Thursday on the planned Qur’an bonfire, calling it a “monumentally terrible” idea.
“This is a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaida,” he said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“If (Terry Jones is) listening, I hope he understands that what he’s proposing to do is completely contrary to our values as Americans. That this country has been built on the notion of freedom and religious tolerance. And as a very practical matter, I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women who are in uniform.”
The pistol-toting, moustachioed Jones, for his part, has been unmoved by pleas from around the globe to call off the stunt at his church of about 50 parishioners in Gainesville, Fla. Islam is a “false religion … of the devil,” he has said, and therefore needs to be defeated.
“We must send a clear message to the radical element of Islam,” he says. “We will no longer be controlled and dominated by their fears and threats. It is time for America to return to being America.”
He added that supporters have even sent him Qur’ans to burn.
“As of right now, we are not convinced that backing down is the right thing,” the 58-year-old said.
He added, however, that a call from the White House, the State Department or the Pentagon might cause him to rethink those plans. FBI agents were reportedly seen making an unannounced visit to Jones’s Dove Outreach Center, ostensibly to warn him of the death threats they’ve received against him and how they plan to protect him.
On Thursday, the White House said it was discussing contacting the preacher to make a personal appeal amid a warning from Interpol, the international police agency, of an increased risk of terrorist attacks if Jones makes good on his threats.
“If the burning goes ahead as planned there is a strong likelihood that violent attacks on innocent people would follow,” Interpol said in a statement.
Florida’s governor, Charlie Crist, said this week he’s concerned about safety at home and around the world because of the Qur’an stunt. He said he plans to keep a close eye on events Saturday at Jones’s church as U.S. embassies around the world follow orders by the State Department to assess their security measures.
Muslims consider the Qur’an the word of God and demand it’s treated with respect. At least one cleric in Afghanistan has said it’s the duty of Muslims to react to the affront, and that could mean killing Americans.
Obama has been far from alone in his condemnation of Jones. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has also expressed his opposition. So has Obama’s right-wing political foe, Sarah Palin, and Canada’s Peter MacKay.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group, is planning a “Learn, Don’t Burn” initiative that will involve distributing 200,000 Qur’ans throughout the U.S. to replace the 200 slated for the flames in Florida.
It’s all made for an even bigger public relations headache for the White House on the 9-11 anniversary. It’s always a challenge for the White House to determine how best to mark such a painful day for Americans, and this year’s mosque brouhaha further complicated the decision.
Obama administration officials reportedly fretted about where the president should go on Sept. 11, apparently keen to avoid New York due to a planned protest by those opposed to the mosque on Saturday afternoon.
The president has angered those on both sides of the fierce debate by saying he supports the right of Muslims to build a community centre and mosque at Ground Zero, but refusing to weigh in on the wisdom of building the facility there.
His ultimate decision to observe the anniversary at the Pentagon again this year has predictably outraged his detractors on the right, although George W. Bush himself marked only two of seven anniversaries _ in 2002 and 2006 _ at Ground Zero during his presidency.
“I think he’s nationalized the mosque issue, so I’m not sure that he wants to face the protest,” Fox News panelist Christopher Metzler said this week. “The president had enough time to go to stump for the Olympics, but he can’t show up at Ground Zero? It’s an Amtrak ride away.”
Vice-President Joe Biden will travel to New York instead, while Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush will visit the Pennsylvania farmer’s field where another hijacked plane crashed that day.