"It is not that we burn the Koran with some type of vindictive motive," Mr. Jones said. "We do not even burn it with great pleasure or any pleasure at all. We burn it because we feel a deep obligation to stay with the court system of America. The court system of America does not allow convicted criminals to go free. And that is why we feel obligated to do this."
The first time the Rev. Terry Jones threatened to burn the Quran -- 200 copies of it -- local and national media alerted the world. An American general weighed in, voicing concerns about the safety of U.S. troops. Cable news networks cycled the story every few hours for several days. Thankfully, the disturbing threat was never carried out. The second time, on March 20, Jones's Florida church put the Quran on trial and found it guilty of five "crimes against humanity," including the promotion of terrorist acts and "the death, rape and torture of people worldwide whose only crime is not being of the Islamic faith."
There was almost no media coverage the second time around. Maybe the locals in Gainesville, Florida were not keen on drawing more attention to this strange church, its even stranger leader, and this latest of his very bizarre actions. On the national and international scene, dramatic events like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the air bombing of Libya rightly took center stage. Perhaps the most likely reason for the lack of media coverage is that the burning of the Quran on March 20 didn't have the politically-charged backdrop of Jones's earlier threat: the controversy over building an Islamic Center near the site of the World Trade Center.
But angry Mullahs in Afghanistan were paying attention and last Friday they urged their followers to avenge the desecration of Islam's holy book. Thousands overtook the United Nations compound in Mazar-I-Sharif and when the dust settled, at least 12 U.N. workers were dead, as were five Afghans. Over the weekend, additional protests across the country resulted in at least nine more deaths and scores of injuries.
Stupid. Deplorable. Tragic waste. The killings are demoralizing to the vast majority of the world's Muslims; the trial and "execution" of the Quran is embarrassing to most Christians -- the kind of behavior that sends not a few fed-up skeptics out the church door and into organizations like atheist clubs where they often experience the honesty, kindness, and good-humored give-and-take missing in many churches.
Terry Jones and the extremist leaders in Afghanistan represent two sides of the same counterfeit coin: small-minded men who make of the one god they worship a petty, tribal deity whose primary character trait is a violent, unpredictable temper. And as this god's self-appointed spokesmen, their own shared psychology leaves them with a desperate need for attention and adulation. Death and destruction -- and the undoing of painstaking progress -- follow in the wake of the pathological insecurities of such extremists-for-hate.
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has long advocated for the kind of interaction between Christians and Muslims that does not minimize their important differences. The "fuzzy liberal" approach to interreligious dialogue (as I once heard him describe it) is to assume that differences on, say, the Trinity, or loving one's enemies can be "scraped away" to reveal an innocuous set of propositions that reasonable people of both traditions can readily affirm.
But as Volf says in his new book, Allah: A Christian Response, Muslims and Christians will be able to live peacefully together only when "the identities of each religious group are respected and given room for free expression." The corollary of this claim is that peaceableness is possible only when we recognize the "significant overlaps in the ultimate values that orient the lives of people in these communities."
In positioning themselves as steadfast enemies, Terry Jones and the Afghan Mullahs have demonstrated how alike they are -- how they operate from the same set of theological propositions: God is pretty much mad all the time; only they have access into what triggers God's violent temper; and whatever the wrong committed against this God, somebody's probably going to get hurt or killed in the righting of it.
It really isn't "God's will" they're after. In Jones's case, it's not even the conversion of Muslims to Christianity that consumes him. Rather, he wants Muslims to "honor, obey, and submit to the Constitution of the United States."
A small god. A small-minded disregard for the neighbor that God/Allah gives us to love. A small, isolated problem? Media coverage -- or the lack of it -- might suggest so. But one look today at the religious, political, and economic landscape and it's clear that anger-driven small-mindedness is not the exclusive preserve of Afghan Mullahs and Florida's fundamentalists.
Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.