By Ann Gerhart and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 10, 2010; 10:56 PM
On the afternoon of July 12, the Rev. Terry Jones fired off a series of messages on Twitter, decrying Islam as fascism and President Obama's support for a new Kenyan constitution that could permit abortion and codify Islamic law. His final one for the day said this: 9/11/2010 Int Burn a Koran Day.
With that abbreviated declaration, the fringe pastor from Gainesville, Fla., began a crusade that two months later culminated in deadly riots in Afghanistan, threats from jihadists and pleas from world leaders that Jones call off his inflammatory stunt.
The escalation of tweet to tense global spectacle is a story of hate and distrust amplified by tools of instant communication. Enabled by a burst of saturation media coverage this week, Jones shrewdly tapped into controversy over an Islamic center planned near Ground Zero and the fears of millions that Islam is a religion of violence.
Friday, as security forces in India braced for new waves of protests, Jones still was flirting with lighting a book-burning bonfire at his Dove World Outreach Center. Another provocateur, Randall Terry, pledged that he would tear out Koran pages in front of the White House on Saturday morning, during services commemorating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Two days after Jones sent his tweet and started a Facebook group, an organization that monitors news about Islam rang the first alarm bell. EuroIslam.Info, a collection of news and analysis headed by a Harvard professor of divinity, picked up the Dove World mission statement - "To bring to awareness to the dangers of Islam and that the Koran is leading people to hell" - and posted it on its "Islamaphobia Observatory" section. By July 21, the Council on American-Islamic Relations was calling for Koran education sessions to refute the burnings.
On July 23, Jones was tweeting about having more than 700 Facebook friends for his International Burn a Koran group. Next, he did a short interview on CNN, and after that, on July 30, the National Association of Evangelicals, one of the largest collections of such churches, denounced the event and urged Jones to call it off.
Still, the stunt caused little commotion domestically, even as senior officials within the FBI, the State Department and military intelligence watched warily for the news to inflame sentiment in the Middle East and Asia.
"This is not the first time something like this has happened," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday. Other pastors had burned Korans before and posted video on YouTube. "But what is different is the potential that the world will be watching and reacting," because of the contentious debate over the proposed Islamic center at Ground Zero.
About the same time, in early August, Muslim Facebook users began receiving chain messages asking them to join groups formed to decry the plan to burn copies of Islam's holy book.
Shakir Stanikzai, 29, of Kabul was one of them. He said the issue didn't spark widespread anger in Afghanistan until about a week ago, after news media outlets in Muslim countries replayed that first Jones television interview, which also circulated on the Internet.
"After the interview on CNN, it got very hot," Stanikzai said. "People started seriously thinking about it."
In early August, a Sunni scholars' center at al-Azhar University in Cairo issued a statement condemning the plan to burn Korans and warning that doing so could have "dangerous consequences."
The first large protest in the Muslim world over the planned bonfire appears to have taken place in Indonesia, where thousands took to the streets Sept. 4, according to local news reports. Protesters marched with printed signs that said: "You burn a Qur'an, You Burned in Hell!!" Last Sunday, when aides prepared Gen. David H. Petraeus in Kabul for an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the issue came up as one of many the general could be asked about.
"At the time of the interview, there wasn't much interest in the story," a NATO official close to Petraeus said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Still, the official said, the general grew concerned about the issue because "he learned from past experience that this could cause potential problems here."
The official said Petraeus didn't dwell on whether weighing in on the issue could backfire by amplifying the reach of the story.
"I don't think it was a hard call for him because he believes it is a moral imperative to mitigate or prevent any action that could potentially put our troops and civilians in harm's way," the NATO official said.
A senior defense official familiar with the general's thinking said Petraeus deliberately cast the issue first and foremost as a threat to U.S. troops.
"Then it no longer is simply a political issue," the official said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. "That way you can get Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton to agree." Pleas for an end to the Koran-burning plan came in short order from the highest levels: Secretary of State Clinton; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who made a curt call Thursday to Jones; and Obama.
But as the week went on, outrage escalated in Muslim countries, as the holy month of Ramadan, a period of fasting, reflection and religious fervor for Muslims, came to an end.
On Monday morning, an Afghan imam in Kabul convened a demonstration in which protesters burned an effigy of Jones and chanted "Death to America." Some threw stones at a passing U.S. military convoy, but organizers quickly reined them in. Other similar protests happened across the country later in the week.
In Pakistan, where national attention has been focused on devastating floods and deadly bombings, the issue surged to the forefront only on Thursday, after Obama spoke. As about 200 lawyers in the central city of Multan burned a U.S. flag in a protest against the plan, several Pakistani officials and religious leaders lined up to denounce it.
President Asif Ali Zardari, through a spokesman, called Jones's Koran-burning threat a "despicable act" that would inflame Muslim sentiments and "cause irreparable damage to interfaith harmony and also to world peace." Interior Minister Rehman Malik wrote a letter to the chief of the international police agency Interpol, urging it to help prevent the act; later in the day, the agency issued a statement that cited Malik's letter and warned member nations of a heightened terror alert.
Dawn, a prominent English-language newspaper, published an editorial lamenting the news media attention given to Jones, a pastor it deemed akin to Osama bin Laden - an "extremist" whose views are not shared by most followers of the religion he claims to represent.
Still, the editorial warned: "The Obama administration is rightly concerned that it will deepen anti-US sentiment . . . there is a danger of the issue becoming a catalyst for violence targeting Christians, and foreigners, as in the case of the Danish cartoons a few years ago."
Even after Jones called off plans to go ahead with the burning Thursday, thousands of Afghans took to the streets to protest the plan on Friday, the first day of Eid, a holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.
In Badakhshan province, hundreds of people joined protests, including some who tried to scale the fence of a NATO base, prompting guards to open fire, the BBC reported. At least one protestor was killed.
Another State Department official acknowledged Friday that it can be a challenge to explain why burning a religious text is constitutionally protected in the United States, when much of the rest of the world, including Europe and Canada, bans such acts outright.
"A lot of the countries we are engaging with say, 'Why can't you stop it?' " the official said.
Correspondent Karin Brulliard in Islamabad, staff writer Michelle Boorstein in Gainesville and special correspondents Masood Azraq in Kabul and Uthman Mukhtar in Fallujahand contributed to this report.