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 painful occasion tainted this year by an anti-Muslim backlash that has sparked an international uproar.
A small Florida church’s stated intention to burn copies of Islam’s holiest text, the Qur’an, on Saturday’s 9-11 anniversary has injected red-hot politics and emotions into commemoration of an event that traumatizes and inflames Americans like few others in the nation’s history.
By late Thursday, it was unclear whether the church’s pastor, Terry Jones, would go through with his threat. He backed down from his plans earlier in the day, saying his change of heart resulted from the leader of a planned mosque and community centre near the former site of New York’s World Trade Center agreeing to change its location.
But that claim was immediately denied by almost every official involved, and Jones said he would rethink the Qur’an bonfire despite a personal appeal from Defence Secretary Robert Gates earlier in the day. Jones said a Florida imam “clearly, clearly lied to us” about moving the mosque.
At an earlier news conference, Jones said Americans want the mosque moved and Muslims do not want the Qur’an set on fire, and so instead of burning the books in Gainesville, Fla., on Saturday, he’ll fly to New York to speak to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf about finding a new location for the mosque.
“We are, of course, now against any other group burning Qur’ans,” Jones said. “We would right now ask no one to burn Qur’ans. We are absolutely strong on that. It is not the time to do it.”
But Rauf, the leader behind the mosque, was puzzled, denying even hearing from anyone about meeting with Jones on Saturday. The developer of the property, meantime, released a statement saying the mosque “is not being moved.”
Florida Imam Muhammad Musri, the man who purportedly brokered the chat, said it was simply that: an agreement to have a conversation.
“I told the pastor that I personally believe the mosque should not be there, and I will do everything in my power to make sure it is moved,” Imam Muhammad Musri told The Associated Press in Florida.
“But there is not any offer from there (New York) that it will be moved. All we have agreed to is a meeting, and I think we would all like to see a peaceful resolution.”
The pastor’s plan to burn hundreds of Qur’ans had marred an anniversary usually marked with solemnity and quiet reflection in the United States, although the debate raging about the mosque was blamed by some observers for igniting 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 after Islamic extremists flew jetliners into the World Trade Center.
U.S. President Barack Obama weighed in Thursday on the threatened Qur’an burning, while Gates phoned Jones to urge him to reconsider.
“This is a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaida,” Obama 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 called Islam a “false religion … of the devil,” and therefore one that needed to be defeated.
“We must send a clear message to the radical element of Islam,” he said before backing down on his plans. “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 even sent him Qur’ans to burn.
FBI agents were reportedly seen making an unannounced visit to Jones’s Dove Outreach Center early Thursday, ostensibly to warn him of the death threats they’d received against him and how they planned to protect him if he went through with his plans.
Interpol, the international police agency, warned of an increased risk of terrorist attacks if Jones had made good on his threats. Hundreds of angry Afghans burned a U.S. flag and chanted “Death to the Christians” on Thursday to protest against Jones’s plans.
Muslims consider the Qur’an the word of God and demand that it be treated with respect. At least one cleric in Afghanistan said it was 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, also expressed his opposition. So has Obama’s right-wing political foe, Sarah Palin, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group, also planned a “Learn, Don’t Burn” initiative that aimed to distribute 200,000 Qur’ans throughout the U.S. to replace the 200 that might still be 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 is always a challenge for the White House to determine how best to mark such a heartwrenching day for Americans, and this year’s mosque brouhaha further complicated the deliberations.
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 near 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 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 panellist 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.