Saturday is International Burn a Quran Day.
Perhaps you hadn't heard. The day is the brainchild of one Terry Jones, pastor of the tiny Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville. You will not be surprised to hear that his plan to build a bonfire of Qurans has stirred passions around the world. The New York Times reports Jones has been condemned by Muslim leaders in Egypt, Indonesia and elsewhere and that some U.S. preachers plan to read the Quran in Sunday services as an act of religious solidarity.
Supporters have encouraged Jones to barbecue the Quran with pork, a meat Islam forbids. A young Muslim student at the University of Florida told The Miami Herald of the "uneasiness" she now feels.
And if you're wondering how Jones picked the day for this repugnant act, it's simple. Saturday is the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In other words, he proposes to commemorate an act of hate with an act of hate.
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He will do this, he says, even though he's been denied a permit.
He will do it, he says, in the face of protest from Christians and Muslims alike.
He will do it, he says, even though half his church has deserted him.
He will do it, he says, even though it cannot help but inflame radical Muslims.
He will do it, he says, even though it might place U.S. soldiers overseas at risk.
And the surprising thing is that none of this is surprising. To the contrary, you find yourself wondering how something like this did not happen long ago. After all, what Jones plans to do feels sadly predictable, pathetically in line with the kind of sentiments that have been oozing out of our computers, televisions and radios for years now.
Indeed, it is difficult to escape a sickening sense that he only reflects the Zeitgeist of a nation that seems to have grown not simply more intolerant, but more accepting of its intolerance, more comfortable with its intolerance, more willing to rationalize its intolerance, than at any time in almost 50 years.
It's hardly news anymore when a conservative pundit or public figure -- and yes, that's almost always the profile -- says something belittling, bellicose, ignorant or hateful about gay people, Hispanics, blacks or undocumented immigrants.
And Muslims? Lord, it's been open season on them for years, the increasingly strident denunciations of Islam culminating in this summer of discontent, of angry protest against proposed mosques, not just in lower Manhattan, but also in such far-flung burgs as Murfreesboro, Tenn., Temecula, Calif., and Sheboygan, Wis.
Jones' plan, then, feels somehow . . . inevitable. Of course he's going to fuel a bonfire with Islam's holy book.
Haven't human beings often resorted to fire to purge themselves of that they fear and misunderstand? The Nazis did it in the 1930s, throwing books into flames as a way of killing the dangerous ideas on their pages. Southern whites did it in the 1950s, throwing rock 'n' roll records into fire as a way of denying the cultural miscegenation the music proved.
There is in the act of burning something primitive and tribalistic, something that appeals to the lizard brain which has no ability or desire to reason, no comprehension of ideals and abstract concepts, that knows only that it lives in fear of a world it cannot understand and will do anything to send the fear away.
The process of becoming a truly human being is the process of conquering that lizard brain. Unfortunately, some people never do.
On Saturday, some of those people will gather round a bonfire to watch pages blacken and curl and turn to smoke. You listen to the hatred spewing from respectable leaders in prominent places, you think of how normal that has become, and one thing suddenly seems starkly clear:
We're burning a whole lot more than books.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.