Who is to blame for the impact of one pastor’s Burn a Koran day?

He’s been accused of shaming America, of distorting Christianity and providing a massive recruitment boost for terrorists in the Middle East. Oh yes, and Indonesia says he’s to blame for putting world peace at risk.

Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, Tony Blair, the Pope and the president of the European Union are among the very many world figures to have condemned him and what he planned to do.

But is Pastor Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who planned to mark the anniversary on 9/11 tomorrow by getting people to burn copies of the Koran, really to blame for the potential consequences of what he had planned?

Before I go on, this isn’t going to be a post supporting the vile act Pastor Jones had planned, or a defence of the right to freedom of expression. What I’m trying to understand is whether the media are more at fault than anything else here.

It sounds quite grand when Pastor Jones was first introduced to the world as the leader of a church. It’s a little less grand when you realise he has a flock of 50 people. And even less so when you find out the number of followers he had has fallen as a result of his offensive plans for this weekend.

Even in Gainesville, Florida, where his church operates, he isn’t seen as a significant figure, and he quickly became isolated from other faith organisations. I was about to say ‘other civic leaders’ then but I’m not sure running a church attended by 50 people makes you any greater clout or influence than a DJ playing cheesy tunes in a local bar on a Saturday night.

And that’s why the media’s coverage of this story seems a little out of proportion with the facts. Yes, it’s a news story because it will interest people and get them talking, but has the media’s non-stop coverage actually made things worse? Did one pastor publicity stunt really need a wider cast of international figures than you normally get at the funeral of royalty to all pass critical comment? If he was the Archbishop of Canterbury, or even a TV evangelist with a nationwide following, but this is one man and a small group of people in a town which is dreadfully embarrassed about being associated with them.

In fact, as the New York Times reports, this wouldn’t be the first time an American church has gone ahead with Koran burning. But as the NYT puts it:

Mr. Jones was able to put himself at the center of those issues by using the news lull of summer and the demands of a 24-hour news cycle to promote his anti-Islam cause. He said he consented to more than 150 interview requests in July and August, each time expressing his extremist views about Islam and Sharia law.

It’s fair to also assume that had he gone ahead with his Koran burning on Saturday night, the numbers actually taking part would have been dwarfed by the media attending to witness this event. President Obama’s press secretary summed it up by saying more media attend the Pastor’s press conferences than members of his congregation turn up for church.

Although Fox News had said it wouldn’t cover the stunt if it happened, the fact it had happened would be news around the world. One man, will 50 followers, elevated to some super-important status by the world’s media simply because he runs a church.

As the story continues to lead news bulletins in the UK this morning, it appears the Gainesville Sun has got the right idea. It’s the third story on their website. Perhaps this is proof that a little local knowledge can go a very long way when it comes is assessing just how important a person is?

The old saying about a butterfly in America flapping its wings and causing an earthquake in China seems particularly relevant in this case.


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