They took the pastor’s bait, just like they took bin Laden’s

They took the pastor’s bait, just like they took bin Laden’s


Having scammed his way to centre stage, Terry Jones pivoted at the last moment. He cancelled his plan to burn the Quran, but only on the basis of an utterly fictitious claim to be in negotiations over moving a planned New York City Islamic centre away from its site a few blocks from the World Trade Center area. The erroneously named “Ground Zero mosque” had become a cause celebre of the American right, and the pastor’s outrageous linkage of the two issues had been expressed by the Republican presidential wannabe Sarah Palin, who had urged Mr Jones to refrain from burning the Quran, because doing so would be an “insensitive and unnecessary provocation – much like building a mosque at Ground Zero”. Mr Jones jumped on that bandwagon, even flying to New York on Saturday, claiming to have a meeting arranged with the imam of the planned downtown Islamic centre. You had to marvel at the man’s chutzpah.

By then, the American media were asking themselves whether they had enabled Mr Jones’s epic political scam through the coverage they had given him. Some blamed the coverage on the attention paid to Mr Jones by the senior US military and political leadership. Others countered that the media’s fascination with Mr Jones’ scandalous plan had made it an international issue whose repercussions Washington could not ignore. Still, it was pretty obvious to everyone that they had been had by a two-bit hustler, who had relied on their responses to his threatened provocation to gain a media platform for his ignorant bigotry.

Less obvious though was the Jones saga’s parallel with Osama bin Laden – a marginal figure in the Arab world whose significance has been vastly overstated by the media and political response to his murderous provocations.

Bin Laden commanded no more than a few hundred men. But he parlayed the attention garnered by his spectacular acts of violence – and the response they provoked from Washington – to try and establish himself as a player in the global political conversation.

The September 11 attacks made bin Laden the very personification of America’s worst nightmares, prompting a massive reordering of domestic political and security arrangements and creating the pretext for two disastrous military occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq. But they failed to achieve their most basic objective – rallying the global Muslim ummah to the banner of violent jihad under which they would overthrow US-backed regimes throughout the Islamic world.

Long-suffering Palestinians on whose behalf bin Laden claimed to be murdering New Yorkers never accepted his right to speak – or kill – on their behalf. Nor did Iraqis labouring under US sanctions, nor any other oppressed Muslim community whose grievances bin Laden cited as his motivation.

Even though opinion polls show that most Muslims then – and now – shared bin Laden’s views of US malfeasance, only a fringe minority supported his response of violence against innocents.

Bin Laden’s face and world view dominated the US media in the days and weeks that followed September 11, and that, in turn, raised his significance elsewhere – particularly after bin Laden became the reason for the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Even Iraq was invaded, not simply because it was believed that Saddam Hussein might have weapons of mass destruction, but because of a fictitious claim that the Baathist regime had links with al Qa’eda. For a couple of years, every tape released by bin Laden’s PR department got a massive global TV audience. But their message was taken a lot less seriously in the Arab world than in the West – indeed, the marginalisation of the Qa’eda group even in Islamist politics is evidenced in the fact that its statements devote so much of their time to excoriating Hamas, Hizbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran.

Still, even today, the threat of al Qa’eda’s small band of desperadoes once again getting lucky in the US remains a major feature of American political discourse. Barack Obama warned Mr Jones that burning Qurans would be “a recruitment bonanza for al Qa’eda”. The threat of al Qa’eda, denuded though it may be, is also the primary reason offered for keeping 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan at massive cost in US blood and treasure, despite the fact that their presence actually fuels a nationalist revolt there. And Republicans routinely accuse Mr Obama of failing to take seriously the al Qa’eda threat.

The Jones saga should serve as a warning of the danger of treating marginal figures who threaten outrages – or in bin Laden’s case, commit brutal ones – for significant voices directing history. “These events have divided the world into two sides – the side of the believers and the side of the infidels,” bin Laden said in a taped message soon after the 2001 attacks. “Every Muslim has to rush to make his religion victorious. The wind of faith has come.”

The idea that a deranged criminal could set off a war of civilisations simply by a single act of mass murder ought to have been nothing more than a wicked fantasy. But far too many Americans have taken the bait, with disastrous consequences.

*Published in the UAE-based THE NATIONAL on Sept. 12. Tony Karon is a New York based analyst who blogs at