Belmont Club

Gessler's Hat

In retrospect the crucial moment in the 2010 Koran Burning incident came on August 13 when the New York Daily News reported that “President Obama gave the proposed mosque near Ground Zero a clear and powerful endorsement last night, saying the country’s ‘commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.'”

“Let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country,” the President said to applause from the 90 guests at a White House dinner Room celebrating the holy month of Ramadan.

“That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances,” Obama said.

Almost a month later, the New York Daily News was writing that on the eve of September 11, 2010, that protesters were threatening to copy Pastor Terry Jones’  Koran burning across the country”.  Terry who? Terry Jones, the leader of a 50 member church based in Gainesville, Florida. The earliest mention of Jones Koran burning project was on August 16 when the ABC’s Russell Goldman mentioned Jones in connection with a long article entitled “Tensions Mount as 9/11 Anniversary Approaches”. It cited Jones as an example of “anti-Muslim feelings … likely stoked by the dragging wars in Iraq and particularly Afghanistan, along with fresh acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, including the foiled Christmas Day and Time Square bomb plots and the massacre of unarmed soldiers at Ft. Hood. [and] exacerbated when a Muslim group sought permission to build a community center within a block of Ground Zero.” On the same day the Gulf News juxtaposed the two issues explicitly, lumping Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Terry Jones together as “despicable” opponents of the Cordoba Center [Ground Zero Mosque]:

Former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich predictably chose Fox News to spew his bile, saying: “The idea of a 13-storey building set up by a group — many of whom, frankly, are very hostile to our civilisation …” In reality, the Cordoba Initiative seeks “to strengthen the bridge between Islam and the West”, which is more than can be said for the inflammatory rhetoric of Gingrich.

The most despicable individual of all is Terry Jones, the senior pastor of a church at the Dove World Outreach Centre, who says he is planning a “Burn the Koran [Quran] Day” on September 11, 2010.

From then it was all downhill. By August 24 Jones himself was linking the two issues together. CNN reported that “Jones has proposed a meeting with Abdul Rauf, the imam at the center of the controversial proposal to build a mosque and Islamic center near New York’s ground zero.” He was beginning to go from the pastor of a busload of people to an international news figure.

In the same time period another meme was beginning to take shape.  On August 18 CBS News reported that one person in five believed that Barrack Hussein Obama was a Muslim.  “Americans increasingly are convinced – incorrectly – that President Obama is a Muslim, and a growing number are thoroughly confused about his religion.” One August 20 Time Magazine reported, in an article titled “Majority Oppose Mosque, Many Distrust Muslims”, that a big majority of people it polled were opposed to the Ground Zero Mosque and — in the same article —  one in four respondents believed President Obama was a Muslim.

According to a new TIME poll, 61% of respondents oppose the construction of the Park51/Cordoba House project, compared with 26% who support it. More than 70% concur with the premise that proceeding with the plan would be an insult to the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center. …

Nearly one-third of the country thinks adherents of Islam should be barred from running for President — a slightly higher percentage than the 24% who mistakenly believe the current occupant of the Oval Office is himself a Muslim. In all, just 47% of respondents believe Obama is a Christian; 24% declined to respond to the question or said they were unsure, and 5% believe he is neither Christian nor Muslim.

The memes fed on each other as these things do. By September 9, 2010 the pressure on Jones to call off his Koran burning event was immense. The previous nobody received a call from the Secretary of Defense who appealed to his patriotism to stop what Gates said was an inflammatory event. “Obama officials knew direct contact to persuade pastor Terry Jones to call off his planned Quran burning could inspire copycats. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates went forward out of concern for US troops’ safety.” FBI agents made a special visit to Jones warning him of threats to his life. NPR reported:

According to officials familiar with the situation, the FBI visited Pastor Terry Jones several times. There is no law against what he wanted to do, they told him, but they were concerned about what might happen to HIM if he went ahead with his Koran Bonfire. They talked to him about being a potential target for violence and threats and told him the story of the Danish cartoonist and other people who have had their lives changed by making this kind of bold statement. They also told him they were concerned that civil rights violations and hate crimes might grow out of what he was planning to do and they wanted him to understand that.

NPR even suggested the Feds were trying to discourage Jones from going forward. “Makes you wonder if the agents did a little show-and-tell as well. For instance, showing crime-scene photos is a standard practice when law-enforcement officials are trying to shock someone into seeing things their way.” The FBI trying to warn someone off. Imagine that.

And right on cue the New York Daily News reports that the feared copycats are here. “The much-ballyhooed Koran burning in Florida may have been called off, but other copycats that flew under the radar are still planning to burn Islam’s holy book tomorrow.” Which raises the question: if so much pressure was required to stop one obscure pastor from burning Korans, what happens if hundreds do it?

What is driving the dynamic that transformed a relatively local building permit issue and an obscure pastor into an international issue? Two things: politics and symbolism. The politics of this issue are stark. Americans by an overwhelming majority are opposed to the Ground Zero Mosque. That fact alone would have been enough fire to which Terry Jones could put his taper. But there was more.

President Obama, who 20 to 25% of Americans believed was Muslim insinuated himself into the issue in an election year. Unable to pass up a teaching moment the President declared his support for the unpopular project at a Ramadan dinner! This was pouring gasoline on the fire. Now Jones didn’t need a taper to light his Korans. The heat from the controversy could now be felt all the way in Gainesville. And the President currently is doing it again. The Guardian says the President warned it could cause “profound damage” to U.S. interests.

“The idea that we would burn the sacred text of someone else’s religion is contrary to what this country stands for. This is a way of endangering our troops, our sons and daughters. It is in the age of the Internet something that can cause us profound damage around the world, so we’ve got to take it seriously.”

Ignoring the fact that the Defense Department itself burned Bibles, it was a hypocritical statement and the even Washington Post knows it. Marci A. Hamilton writing in the WaPo’s Guest Voices, thinks the President should have applied the exactly same yardstick to Jones as he grandly proclaimed at the Ramadan dinner. Why should there be tolerance for one and a warning to the other?

Here is what the president should have said:

Jones has a solid constitutional right to burn any book he wants (assuming fire codes are met). But the First Amendment prevents the government from burning or censoring books. That is what makes us different from al Qaeda, Iran, and Shari’a law.

Jones has a right to believe anything he chooses. That right is absolutely protected — the government cannot tell any American what to believe. That is what makes us different from al Qaeda, Iran, and Shari’a law.

But he didn’t. Like an engine that is racing itself to pieces, like a can of gasoline with a suicidal wish to pour itself on the flames, the administration can’t help but lecture the voters on subjects in a manner guaranteed to cause offense. Ground Zero, the Cordoba Mosque, Bible Burning and Islam are subjects which the President, given his profile, should regard as nearly toxic and avoid like the plague. Rick Blaine’s sage advice about a person who says things as who shouldn’t come to mind. “I wouldn’t bring up Paris if I were you, it’s poor salesmanship.”

It is what happens next that the President should worry about, starting with the 2010 elections. The Ground Zero Mosque issue, the President’s tilting at an obscure pastor from Florida, the hollow-sounding pronouncements are music to the President’s opponent’s ears. Terry Jones may no longer be burning Korans, but Obama is still busy burning his party’s electoral chances. But the Koran’s aren’t done yet.

What happens if the Administration’s fears of copycats come true? What if people in small or large groups forever mark September 11 by burning Korans starting with 2010?  The President should avoid turning an exaggerated deference to Islam into a modern version of Gessler’s Hat, something people must bow to with clenched teeth. The difference between respect and resentment is the distinction between the voluntary and the enforced. When leaders push an unpopular policy by fiat they are bound to inspire defiance of its symbols for its own sake. Sometimes a little thing can become big cause simply because the people pushing the symbols don’t know when to stop.

William Tell, who originally came from Bürglen, was known as an expert shot with the crossbow. In his time, the Habsburg emperors of Austria were seeking to dominate Uri. Albrecht (or Hermann) Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian Vogt of Altdorf, raised a pole in the village’s central square, hung his hat on top of it, demanding that all the townsfolk bow before the hat. When Tell passed by the hat without bowing to it, he was arrested. As punishment, he was forced to shoot an apple off the head of his son, Walter. Otherwise, both would be executed. Tell was promised freedom if he successfully made the shot.


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