Of the Devil? The Beam in Terry Jones’ Eye

“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.

The Road to Hell

A few days ago, the construction site of a Muslim community center in a suburb of Nashville, TN was attacked by arsonists.  Construction equipment was damaged and destroyed.  Although no person or group has come forward to claim credit for the attack, the message is clear and echoed by members of the local community:  No Muslims Allowed.

The fact that such acts constitute terrorism is plainly evident.  Terrorism – the use of terror as a means of changing the behavior or beliefs of a population or a segment thereof – is not the sole business of Muslims, despite what some others would have you believe.  If you attempt to intimidate others into changing their thoughts, beliefs, or behavior with violence or the threat thereof, you are committing terrorism, period.  There is no ‘except Christians’ or ‘except white people’ clause.  There is no ‘unless you think they deserve it’ clause.  There is no ‘but I’m on the RIGHT SIDE’ clause.

The fact that anti-Muslim sentiment is growing in this country is also plainly evident.  Mosques and community centers that had existed peacefully in communities all over the United States are suddenly finding themselves the targets of vandalism, hate crimes, and in too many cases, attacks.  Pipe bombs in Florida.  Arson in California.  Drive-by shootings in Seattle.  Graffiti and thrown stones in too many places to name.  Protests everywhere.  Signs claiming Islam is a religion of hate and terror, that Muslims are not welcome here and should go home.

As the sentiment grows, one is forced to consider its logical continued growth:  There are already a disquieting amount of elected officials who have been caught uttering anti-Muslim sentiments, and if the growing hatred of Islam is any indication, that number can only be expected to grow.  Add to that the concept that for each elected official or member of government that we know of harboring this hatred, there is likely at least a few more, and it becomes truly worrying.  At what point will the assumed minority of Islamophobic members of government become a majority?  At what point will they become too great a majority to effectively control?

At what point do the pogroms start?

In 1920’s Germany, anti-Semitic sentiments were growing steadily.  Jews were not yet oppressed as a matter of legal policy, but they would find their homes, businesses, and places of worship vandalized on a regular basis unless they stayed in their own neighborhoods – and often even then.  Public outcry against the Jews was common.  And then one day in January of 1933, a charismatic leader came to power and almost immediately codified the existing cultural hatred of Jews into law.  Any student of history knows what happened next.

I want to make clear one point, however:  The Holocaust happened not because one evil, charismatic man steered an otherwise innocent populace into evil acts.  The Holocaust happened because a culture of hatred and fear grew in Germany, perhaps not even a majority of the German population – and then one charismatic leader stepped up from that culture and steered the nation into evil acts.  Hitler didn’t give birth to the idea of anti-Semitism in Germany, the idea of anti-Semitism in Germany (among other things) gave birth to Hitler.

A culture of hatred and fear, as a consequence of its own growth and evolution, will eventually produce an avatar and attempt to gain control of its surroundings.

The sticky part is that there is no quick solution to disarming the hatred and fear.  You could round up everyone waving signs with anti-Islam sentiments, but then you’re committing the same horrible acts you’re worried they will commit.  You could attack and vandalize the homes, businesses, and places of worship of those who would steer our nation into a new dark age, but then you’re doing the same thing you accuse them of doing.  If our nation is going to be saved from the culture of hatred and fear that is growing inside it, the only way to do it is to counter that hatred and fear with knowledge and acceptance.  Until and unless it gets to the point where any man or woman of conscience must take up arms to defend their nation from threats foreign or domestic, the only way to protect our nation without destroying it is to use our hearts and minds.

Many of the people who read this have their own fears of Islam or Muslims to address.  I urge you, do not indulge those fears and stoop to hatred, even if – especially even if – you harbor that hatred silently and do not act upon it.  Do the only right and brave thing and confront your fears.  Look inside yourself and seek understanding of what exactly it is you are afraid of.  Seek assistance from counselors or religious leaders if it will help.  Learn what you are afraid of, and then educate yourself to see if those fears are justified.  Learn about Muslims.  If there is one near you, and you think you can handle it, tour a Muslim community center.  You will find that Muslims are all around us, they exist at all levels of society, they are employees and business-owners and teachers and children and mothers and fathers.  In the American melting pot, they are yet another culture to blend with our own.  In fact, there is no ‘they’ – they are us.

I noted above that especially those who harbor fear silently should educate themselves – on the surface, this seems foolish.  After all, isn’t it more those who actually would commit hate crimes and terrorism who should make the greatest effort to prevent those very crimes?  Sure, but consider also this:  Most people who graduate to terrorism do not start out with a desire to commit atrocities and needing only a target.  Most people who graduate to terrorism start from a place of fear and hatred, and only by allowing those fears to fester do they seek an outlet.  Furthermore, those who commit hate crimes and terrorism can be prosecuted and imprisoned – but only if the laws exist to prosecute them under.  Laws that must be voted upon and enforced by those who did not commit them – many of which are, you guessed it, people who harbor those fears silently.

Seek out knowledge for yourself.  Learn about that which you fear and see that your fears are unfounded.  If your friends or family members have those fears, urge them to seek out knowledge and calm their own fears.  Above all, think for yourself and encourage others to do the same.  Nobody can tell you what to think unless you allow them to.  And although those who would tell you what to think may have the best of intentions, those intentions can pave the way to, well, you know.