Foreign Reactions to US Anti-Muslim Events, Part II: Qur’an Burning Day

Foreign Reactions to US Anti-Muslim Events, Part II: Qur’an Burning Day

by Steven R. Corman, Jeffry R. Halverson, and Chris Lundry

This is the second of a four-part series of posts on foreign reactions to recent anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S. In Part I we looked at the Park51 project, also known as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” and found concern over growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. There were also claims about Zionist interests, creating a double-bind situation that would cast the U.S. in a negative light whether the project proceeds or not. At the same time there was an emphasis on diversity of opinion on the subject in the U.S. and an overall more muted reaction than observers here and abroad expected.

Today we consider the coverage of ”International Burn a Qur’an Day.” Given the attention that this story has been getting — one of the stated goals of the event — we can be sure that most people have heard of Gainesville, Florida’s Dove World Outreach Center Pastor Terry Jones’ plan to burn Qur’ans on September 11.

Compared to the other events we’re reviewing in this series, this one is of greatest concern because of its potential to inflame passions and incite violence. Yesterday, General David Petraeus, in an unusual public comment on a U.S. political issue, warned that the event:

could cause significant problems for American troops overseas. It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan.

In a Hardball interview with Jones the issue of the international reaction came up, but Pastor Jones dodged the question, focusing instead on his goal:

Matthews: What do you think the reaction will be as this goes on international television?

Jones: Well I hope it will send a very clear message.

Matthews: What would be the reaction, what would be the consequence?

Jones: Of Islam, that they should not try to do what they have done in Europe. You see in Europe as they took a lackadaisical attitude, as Europe did not move forward, you see that the Moslems in Europe, as they gained in population they also began to demand Sharia law, Sharia courts, which is a very violent form of punishment. And what we hope to accomplish by the burning of the Koran is to send a very clear–it is indeed a radical message but a clear and radical message to Moslems, to Sharia law, that that is not welcomed in America.

Jones also named former President Bush as a politician he respects, but said that he would still not stop the planned event if he were personally asked to do so by Bush.

Mainstream Reaction

Protests of the event have been organized in South Asia. The Nation Online in Pakistan reported on protests in Lahore on August 27. Earlier this week the Associated Press reported on a protest in Kabul involving “hundreds” of Afghans who condemned the planned event, burned U.S. flags, and demanded U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

On Sunday in Indonesia, there was also a protest involving 3000 people.  Here, non-Muslims and Muslim supporters of pluralism have been speaking out against the event since its announcement. Given Indonesia’s recent history of episodes of sectarian violence — in Poso, Ambon, the North Moluccas, Kupang — as well as recent church burnings and bombings, the fact that non-Muslims are on edge is understandable. Although the story is being used to make a broader condemnation of the United States, much of the communication about the proposed burning has been remarkably evenhanded, including noting the work of pluralist groups in Indonesia to head off retaliation there.

Elsewhere mainstream reaction uniformly condemned the event as reflecting religious intolerance, and many expressed concern that it would provoke violent reactions in the Muslim world. On August 24, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (an association of 56 Islamic states promoting Muslim solidarity in economic, social, and political affairs) called the event a “motivated act of hatred and religious intolerance” and expressed fear the event would provoke violence and unrest in the Muslim world. The Muslim World League, based in Saudi Arabia, also predicted the event would have an adverse impact on relations and co-existence of world nations.

Stories in Jordan from  Al-Ghad and incited negative reader reactions. Some readers called for God to “punish the evildoers,” “burn them as they burn His word,” and wished for “floods and earthquakes to strike Florida” on September 11. These readers saw the event as proof of anti-Muslim sentiment and America’s “war on Islam.”

An article on Ikhwan Web, the web site of the Muslim Brotherhood (there is debate about whether this website should be considered mainstream or extremist) described the reaction of Dr. Diaa Rashwan, Islamic movements’ expert at Egypt ’s Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, who:

described the intended burnings of the Quran as unreasonable and exceedingly dangerous, going beyond all reason and sensibility. He maintained that a serious crisis will arise and extremism will be initiated in the Muslim world stressing that it is imperative that the US administration and UN interfere before a vicious circle of violence and extremism is initiated.

Another post on Ikhwan Web said the event revealed the violent nature of Christian “terrorists” who fight ideas with violence rather than opposing ideas.

Finally, in August, a story in the Iranian Republic News Agency reported comments by Mehdi Mostafavi, head of Iran’s Islamic Culture and Communications Organization. He called the event “a totally Zionist gesture” and said it is a “war-seeking discourse” designed to promote religious strife:

While the world needs peace and cooperation of nations, such radical, irrational, and Zionist moves only aim to trigger chaos and seek division among followers of different religions.

Extremist Reaction

Zeb commented on a post about the event at U.S. based Revolution Muslim (the blog at the center of the recent South Park controversy) by claiming that Jones is a fire worshiper (i.e. Zoroastrian). He also linked to his own blog, Takht-e-Sulaiman. In that post, he said:

Now it seems like they’re up for another mega satanic ritual on September the 11th. As a church (as these devils are hiding behind a church this time) is gathering help to burn Muslim’s holy book. Let’s see where they take the world. I don’t know if Muslims now are this much gallant to protest against it with utmost force that it deserves, but if it happens (ALLAH forbid) then this act calls for a war. And I’d love to personally kill terry jones.

Two above-ground Islamist groups in Indonesia have spoken out against the Qur’an burning. Habib Rizieq, the leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), vowed retaliation in Indonesia against non-Muslims if the burning is carried out (in an English-language Jakarta Post story). He later “softened” his stance, arguing that those not involved in the burning should not be punished, that it is permissible (halal) to kill those who are directly involved, and that President Obama should step in to stop the act. These stories have been reported in Indonesian-language media as well.

Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, an organization that calls for a global caliphate, similarly condemned the proposed burning, calling Jones crazy. The announcement likened the event to igniting spilled oil with a cigarette lighter, and noted the unease with which non-Muslims in Indonesia are viewing the event. It also links the event to the controversy over the proposed Park51 project in New York City. Calling the United States “hypocritical,” it noted that this act is consistent with the actions of crusaders, and that former President George W. Bush himself has invoked the term “crusade.” It also asks why the Pope has not stepped in, perhaps showing as much ignorance about sects of Christianity as Westerners often show about Islam. (An Egyptian blog similarly missed this distinction, arguing that the event was to draw attention away from the Catholic Church’s ongoing sex scandals.) On the 27th of August, some 300 HTI protesters demonstrated in front of the American embassy, demanding that the burning must be stopped. Other branches of HTI continue to hold protests throughout Indonesia in the hope that the burning will not take place.

HTI-sympathizing site Syabab similarly invokes George Bush’s use of the term “crusade” to describe the actions of the US and the West. The article enumerates past and recent perceived transgressions toward Islam, and accuses the United States of racism against Muslims. Interestingly, it appears as though Jones and some of the Islamists share some common ground. Jones argues that Islam is not compatible with democracy, the West, and human rights, and that Muslims do not accept Jesus Christ as their savior. The latter is not surprising, but the other three points are themselves made by Muslim extremists who condemn U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although it is a view not shared by a majority of the world’s Muslims, many extremists argue that since democracy formulates laws based on human opinion it is a form of shirk (idolatry), in contrast to divinely revealed Islamic law. Similar arguments are made about the West in general and human rights.

Although it is impossible to locate the original source of this rumor, a simple Google search for “Terry Jones arrested” shows a multitude of stories alleging that the pastor was arrested on child molestation charges, charges that are not true.

Selective Attention

One pattern we see in these stories is selective attention to the worst aspects of the controversy, perhaps in an effort to sensationalize it. For example, a couple of weeks ago reports surfaced that an armed Christian militia group, called Right Wing Extreme, offered to provide security at the Quran burning event. This story was reported in Al-Ghad on August 24. However, the group withdrew its planned support for the event because “after much thought and prayer the organization’s leadership determined this event does not glorify GOD in way that lead the lost to Jesus Christ.” We can find no evidence that this change of heart was reported in Al-Ghad or other foreign outlets.

Also receiving little coverage is the condemnation of the event by a prominent Christian organization in the U.S. As Jennifer Bryson noted, there has not been a groundswell of opposition. However, the National Association of Evangelicals, the largest evangelical group in the country, urged cancellation of the event, saying it would “show disrespect for our Muslim neighbors and would exacerbate tensions between Christians and Muslims throughout the world.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center has also condemned the event.  The Veterans of Foreign Wars also denounced the event this week, saying extremists would exploit it.

Yet, unlike the case of the Park51 project, there is little mention of this alternate stance in the foreign media.  This is ironic given that the congregation of the Dove World Outreach Center is reported to include about 50 people, a number that is dwarfed by the membership of the organizations that have registered opposition.


As might be expected, reaction to the Qur’an burning event was more negative and less balanced than coverage of the Park51 project. Mainstream sources uniformly condemned the act and said it reflected religious intolerance, especially toward Islam. These sources also expressed concern that the event, if it goes forward, would provoke violence, as the protests that have already occurred indicate. Though we could not find as many attempts to link the event with Jewish or Zionist interests as we found in the Park51 case, the Iranian government did attempt to make this connection.

Extremists are using the event to stoke tension and provoke violence. They are calling for war and death to those involved in the event. The extremists have also made efforts to tar all Christians with the actions of this group, arguing that it is somehow related to problems in the Catholic Church (even though the group involved is Protestant). They also frame the event with the Crusader narrative, implying that it is more evidence that the United States wants to destroy Islam.

Finally, we note that, unlike the Park51 case, there is little coverage of facts that contradict the basic negative storyline. The decision of the militia group to support the event was reported, but their later decision to withdraw for religious reasons was not. There has been no coverage of the condemnation of the event by prominent Christian, Jewish or Veterans’ groups, either.

Tomorrow, in Part III of this series, we examine foreign reaction to an assortment of “smaller” recent events involving attacks on Muslims and Muslim groups in the United States.

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