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Qur'an burning: From Facebook to the world's media, how the story grew
Submitted by jonathan on Fri, 2010-09-10 10:18
by Matthew Weaver, The Guardian
It started as a provocative suggestion on a Facebook group – but within two months it was being described as a threat to world peace.
Terry Jones, an extremist pastor with a dwindling flock of followers in Florida, became an international hate figure, drawing universal condemnation from world leaders and prompting violent street demonstrations, when his plans to burn 200 copies of the Qur'an were revealed.
The chronology of the story's growth presents a cautionary tale on the power of rolling news and social media to push a marginal figure to the centre of the global stage.
It has led to anxiety in the media about its role but also prompted questions about how politicians and church groups handled the issue.
The germ of the story was a message, posted in July, on a Facebook group linked to a now unavailable website called Islam is of the Devil – the title of a book by Jones.
The Burn the Koran group called for followers to send photos of how they planned to burn the holy book on the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
The majority of commenters on the Facebook group voiced horror at the suggestion, and there was little sign of any support.
But within days, the story was picked up by the Religion News Service, which quoted Jones's claims that people had sent him copies of the Qur'an to burn.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations was asked for a response. It didn't take the bait – "We don't want to do anything that would be reactive," its director of communication said – but other religious organisations did not show such restraint.
On 25 July, Jones then cranked up publicity for the proposed book burning with an inflammatory video message on YouTube. Holding up a copy of the Qur'an, he said: "This is book is responsible for 9/11."
At this stage, the mainstream media took up the story. The Guardian's US blogger Michael Tomasky picked it up, and by the end of July there were articles on Yahoo News, while Jones had appeared on the CNN.
On 3 August, the mayor of Gainesville, where Jones proposed to perform the stunt, urged the world's media to ignore him. Craig Lowe said Jones was part of a "tiny fringe group and an embarrassment to our community".
But Jones wasn't ignored, and religious groups began to condemn the proposed book burning.
The US-based National Association of Evangelicals called for the event to be cancelled. A few days later, the British group Campaign Islam posted a YouTube message claiming that the event would "wake up the [Islamic] lion from the den".
An influential Sunni authority in Egypt, the al-Azhar supreme council, accused Jones of stirring up hate.
Such statements appeared to confirm that the proposed stunt was damaging strained relations between the US and Islam.
By the time the New York Times profiled Jones on 25 August , he had already been interviewed by 150 media organisations.
But there were still few signs that the proposed burning had caused popular offence in the Muslim world until last Sunday, when 500 people in the Afghan capital, Kabul, took part in a protest. Effigies of Jones were burned alongside the American flag.
The following day General David Petraeus, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, issued a statement to the Associated Press, warning that images of the Qur'an burning could provoke violent retaliation against US troops.
The general's intervention pushed the story to the top of the international news agenda, where it stayed for the rest of the week.
According to the counter-terrorism expert David Schanzer, of Duke University, North Carolina, Petraeus's comments gave Jones more credibility than he deserved.
In a video discussion on Bloggingheads TV, Shanzer said: "By having the head of our entire operation in Afghanistan ask them to refrain from this action, we've brought much more attention to this fringe element than it deserves."
Ignoring Jones would have "undercut his power", Schanzer added.
Hillary Clinton and the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, joined in the condemnation, and yesterday , Obama said the stunt was "a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaida".
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the president of Indonesia – which has the world's largest Muslim population – described it as a threat to world peace and warned that it could create violence and retaliation that would leave "many victims".
The dispute may have been defused by Jones's last-minute change of heart last night.
But there was nothing inevitable about its escalation: in 2008 another extremist pastor with a small band of followers was setting fire to a Qur'an, but nobody seemed to care.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas – a homophobic group notorious for picketing the funerals of US soldiers – burned the copy of the Qur'an on a Washington street corner. But, weary of the group's gay-bashing provocations, media organisations stayed away.article originally published at The Guardian.