“Say: O ye unbelievers!
I worship not that which ye worship,
And ye do not worship that which I worship;
I shall never worship that which ye worship,
Neither will ye worship that which I worship.
To you be your religion; to me my religion.”
The Qur’an, sura 109
There’s a church in Gainesville, Florida ( http://www.doveworld.org/ ) that’s planning on burning as many copies of the Qur’an as they can find on September 11. They’ve even set up a Facebook group to boost participation all over the globe. They claim that although they realize their actions will offend millions – many to the point of armed protest and military response, if General David Petraeus’s warnings are to be heeded ( http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/09/07/florida.quran.burning/index.html ) – they feel their message is more important than its possible consequences. They claim that their message, aimed at radical Muslims only, is not one of hate, but one need look no further than their own website ( http://www.doveworld.org/blog/ten-reasons-to-burn-a-koran ) to see that their reasons to burn the book are based primarily on xenophobia and hate – and if you dig a little deeper, bald-faced hypocrisy.
Their reasons include such gems as number six, decrying Islamic law as being totalitarian – that those under its rule, willingly or not, must obey without question or criticism. This is particularly interesting, given that in an interview, Emma Jones, daughter of Dr. Terry Jones, head of the Dove World Outreach Center, stated in an interview with the Gainesville Sun that “they used mental violence. They’d say, ‘If you’re not obedient, God will punish you.'” (http://www.gainesville.com/article/20090719/ARTICLES/907191005 ) Jennifer Engel, who moved from Germany to work with the church, had this to say after leaving the church: “We had no friends, and also everything was very controlled. We aren’t allowed to say any critical things. […] They started to preach about total obedience. No matter what they say, we have to do it.”
It’s also worth noting that Engel and her husband left the church after they discovered grave financial inconsistencies. Dr. and Mrs. Jones, the leadership of the church, also own a furniture business in Gainesville named TS And Company. During the Engels membership in the church, they handled finances and bookkeeping. There were regular payments from the furniture business to the church, and also unexplained payments from the church to the furniture business of at least $15,000.00. What’s more, the furniture business is staffed entirely by ‘volunteer’ labor from the church, much of that from the Dove World Outreach Academy. Students at the Academy live and work on grounds owned by the furniture company, and their curriculum includes material intended to “break their pride” and “humble themselves not only under God’s mighty hand but under the hand of man” ( http://www.dwocacademy.com/about ). Part of that, apparently, is working long hours for the furniture company without pay, and without the ability to contact friends and family outside the church for any reason whatsoever, according to an academy rulebook acquired by the Gainesville Sun and verified as legitimate by Pastor Stephanie Sapp, VP of the Academy.
That’s not all – the furniture company also purchased properties in low-income housing projects to house their unpaid workers. In a city where 13.2% of the population lives below the poverty line and a county where nearly nine hundred people are homeless, is it truly just for profit-seeking businesses to buy up low-income housing? (2008 census estimate, http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/ACSSAFFFacts?_event=Search&_cityTown=gainesville&_state=04000US12 , and 2010 data from annual report on homeless conditions in Florida, http://www.dcf.state.fl.us/programs/homelessness/docs/2010%20Homeless%20Conditions.pdf ) Furthermore, the Lisa Jones House, described by the church as an outreach program to the poor, provides meals for at least some of the unpaid workers for the church and, by extension, furniture company. Where does the Lisa Jones House get the food for these meals? Why, the local food banks, according to the Gainesville Sun. A request to DWOC for rebuttal on this point was not answered.
So let’s get this all straight – a church sends its youth to study at a private academy, whose curriculum is based in large part in working without pay for a for-profit furniture company owned by the pastor and his wife. Other members of the church also chip in, working long hours to sell furniture, pack and ship orders, and handle bookkeeping (which could generously be described as creative writing). Many of the workers are put up in low-income housing – bought and paid for by the furniture company (which, by the way, is looking for an apartment manager! http://www.christiancareercenter.com/jobs/job/management/1675 ) – and fed with food appropriated from local food banks. Instead of providing service to the community, they are in fact draining limited resources intended to help the poor – not boost profits for a company that has figured out how to avoid paying its employees. In addition to all of that, much of the furniture company’s activities happen on land owned by the church, and therefore tax-free. If a scenario like this were used as a backdrop for a television show, it would be dismissed as unbelievable. And yet this is the church claiming that Islam is “of the devil”, claiming that the prophet Muhammad was “corrupted by power and worldly ambitions”, and that Islam is “not compatible with democracy and human rights”.
Given that this is a nation based on democracy and human rights (though we are far from perfect in either regard), I want to make my position clear: I am strongly against the burning of the Qur’an, but I do not challenge DWOC’s legal right to do so as a form of free expression. I am strongly against the burning of any book, because it is an attempt to destroy an idea. Any idea has a right to exist and be discussed, even and especially those we find distasteful and monstrous. By discussing and considering ideas we may not agree with, we gain enlightenment and understanding of our own ideas on a deeper level. I am not calling for the legal right of the Dove World Outreach Center to burn the Qur’an to be limited; I am only trying to shed some light on their motivations and some of their other, potentially illegal activities they would rather not discuss.
On the flip side, the hate and xenophobia being spread by the Dove World Outreach Center is inspiring a flood of counter-protests all over the country. Churches, interfaith groups, and secular organizations nationwide are organizing events to help calm the fears of their communities. Qur’an readings, interviews and discussions with imams and other Muslim clerics, and explorations of Islam in America are popping up all over. What will I be doing on September 11? Instead of burning a Qur’an, and trying to silence an idea that will surely outlive me, I will be reading it. Though I do not share the Islamic faith, I respect its right to exist and its role as a part of American culture, and wish to know more about it.