Burning the Koran: Muslim world reaction

Hundreds of people gathered in Kabul on Monday to denounce a U.S. church's plan to burn the Islamic holy book on the anniversary of the Sept. 11th attacks.
David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 11:00 AM

Demonstrations erupted here Thursday as hundreds of enraged youths burned effigies, threw rocks and chanted, "Death to America," to protest plans by a Florida church to burn copies of the Koran this weekend.

Washington Post staff writer David Nakamura was online from Kabul, Afghanistan on Thursday, Sept. 9, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the controversy with first-hand reaction from the Muslim world.

And in Washington, President Obama said, "As a very practical matter, as commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States, I just want him [Rev. Terry Jones] to understand that this stunt that he is pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan," in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America. Gen. David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made similar pleas in recent days. The pastor has said he will proceed nonetheless, setting the stage for something of a showdown on Saturday, as senior officials fan out to commemorate the 9/11 anniversary.


David Nakamura: Hello everyone. Thanks for joining us. I'm in Kabul right now listening to lots of firecrackers celebrating the end of Ramadan and start of the Eid al-Fitr holiday. Earlier today, however, I was covering a protest by Afghans of the proposed Koran burning by a Florida church. Here is what the scene looked like http://twitpic.com/2mp67e ... Okay, let's take your questions...


Anonymous: A pastor from a tiny (I mean tiny) church no one had heard of announces he'll burn the Koran, and gets more publicity than he'd ever had in his life. Do foreign news stories state how small the church is? I honestly have not heard just what he expects to accomplish. Have you? If someone burns the Bible, it doesn't hinder Christianity or make people turn away from their faith -- it makes them mad, and, if anything, more resolute in their adherence to Christianity.

David Nakamura: Some stories do note how small the church is. I think I wrote "tiny" in my story this morning. However, not everyone hears the same stories. Some of the youth here in Afghanistan are hearing it from friends, from radio, from their clerics at the local mosque. Many clerics have been talking about it and it is not clear how much of the details are being discussed. Some clerics told me today they are pleased that so many high-powered American officials have denounced the church. But others are still angry, to say the least.


Worcester, Mass.: In Tennessee, a preacher and his congregation are welcoming a new mosque built right next to their church. In fact, cross services are planned when the mosque opens. This has been reported minimally in the news. Meanwhile, the crazy preacher who wants to burn Korans gets incessant media coverage? Why can't we have more incessant coverage of people like the first preacher and no coverage of the nuts? Does the media want to fuel the fire? Do they want a religious war? If the media gave as much coverage to that first preacher, many Muslims would not believe that the U.S, is anti-Islam which actually stokes hate on both sides...

David Nakamura: I can't speak for everyone, but The Washington Post certainly covered the Tennessee story. Here is a link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/22/AR2010082202895.html


washingtonpost.com: Scene in Kabul, Afghanistan


Baltimore, Md. : The irresponsibility of the American press in ginning up this Koran burning controversy is without question. I was glad to see Howard Kurtz deal with this in his blog this morning. This guy Jones has a 50-member church in Florida, yet he's getting publicity that Pope Benedict would envy and it is largely because people such as Katie Couric give him air time because he is "news." As a journalist, what do you think would have happened if the print and broadcast media had just decided, "This guy is a crank and we don't cover every raving lunatic so don't give him any attention."

Seriously, I think this is a prime example of media so desperate for readers and/or page views that they have turned "pastor" Jones into a major figure instead of leaving him in the obscurity his ragamuffin church deserves.

washingtonpost.com: Kurtz: Koran Bonfire: Fanning the Flames (Post, Sept. 9)

David Nakamura: One thing is certain: This story has definitely "won the news cycle." I think part of the reason is because it comes on the heels of the controversy over the "Ground Zero mosque" and also because the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have come back to the front pages -- with the troop pullout in Iraq and the surge in Afghanistan.


washingtonpost.com: Far from Ground Zero, other plans for mosques run into vehement opposition (The Washington Post, Aug. 23)


Tokyo, Japan: Hi Dave, Both Muslim and American societies share the fact that they are often (wrongly) viewed through the words and actions of their extremist margins. Is it widely recognized amongst Muslims that there are extremists in both Kabul and Gainesville?

David Nakamura: Hi Tokyo -- my old stomping grounds... Yes, I think that is widely recognized. Afghans here, for example, told me today that this Florida pastor is just one person (though some called him "stupid, foolish, ignorant"). But the issue is there is a lot of anger and resentment here and in Iraq now against the American presence and influence. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are said to be using this issue and the controversy over the "Ground Zero mosque" to show ordinary residents that the Americans are against them. So there is a propaganda war, too.


Vienna, Va.: As an American journalist in Kabul, do you sense any change in local feeling toward you? Gen. Petraeus voiced concern. Are you and your colleagues on heightened alert?

David Nakamura: Hi Vienna... Yes, I think all foreigners, especially Americans, are on higher alert as Saturday draws nearer. Many, of course, are already on fairly strict security rules -- such as the U.N., whose staff are forbidden to go to many of the "expat" restaurants and off-campus housing. But I'm sure most are going to be extra cautious.


Alexandria, Va.: How much responsibility will reporters take when they say "this bonfire controversy will cause worldwide rage and violence" -- and let's push this story around the clock!"

David Nakamura: This is a tough issue. The more things happen, the more we cover it. I woke up today and decided I would go around Kabul and interview clerics about their views. While talking to one who said he had tempered his anger because of the support from Gen. Petraeus and others against the Florida church, that cleric received a phone call telling him a protest was underway in Eastern Kabul. I decided to go see for myself and that's when I took the picture I linked to above. I thought it was newsworthy and wrote the story linked above that is featured on our homepage. I included the tempered cleric's comments, but as you can see the story has grown more alarmist because of the protest. But it's news, no?


Ground Zero Mosque: Although it would not be at Ground Zero, but two blocks away, some media still use "Ground Zero Mosque" as a shorthand headline (e.g., the site of an L.A. Fox News affiliate saying a poll should most Americans were opposed to a Ground Zero mosque; the story did give correct details). I'm not sure how far away from Ground Zero would be acceptable, but once "Ground Zero Mosque" started being used, that probably became a moot point.

David Nakamura: Fair point and that's why I put it in quotation marks since I know that's not the best name for it but it is one most people would immediately understand the reference.


Fairfax, Va.: David --

Why are no Muslim clerics in the United States explaining to the Islamic world that Americans condemn this action, but his right to do it is guaranteed by the Constitution. Is the separation of church and state such a totally foreign concept to the Islamic world?

David Nakamura: I'm not sure about your premise that no clerics are explaining this. I certainly have not done the research to know one way or the other. However, I would say that while most Americans understand a free speech issue, there is also the counter-weight of this action potentially putting U.S. troops in even greater danger. So I think that is one big reason for the pushback, along with, as Pres. Obama said today, a sense among many that religious tolerance is also an American bedrock value (along with free speech).


Tampa, Fla.: Would allowing the building of the Islamic center (Cordoba House) on Park Place in lower Manhattan in any way counteract the anger at the Koran burning in Gainesville?

Along this line, Prof. Esposito of Georgetown U, in a recent Post chat, said that bin Laden would hate the center and its message. Were it to be built, would the Islamic world take note of the center and its anti-bin Laden message?

washingtonpost.com: Chat: President Obama and his religion with John Esposito (The Washington Post, Aug. 20)

David Nakamura: I'm sure that if that center were built, that would certainly be noted by many Muslims and some would support it and some might not. But I think the issue of the potential burning of the Koran is a completely separate one in the sense of raw emotion it would generate. Today is the final day of Ramadan, then a three-day Eid al-Fitr celebration -- a time of great joy for Muslim families, who celebrate with elaborate meals and gifts. So if images are broadcast of the Koran being burned or radios blare reports of it, I think there will be some segment of society here that will react angrily and probably lash out. Not everyone, by any means, but certainly some, regardless of other examples of America's tolerance.


Bowie, Md.: If people can't protest Koranic violence-advocacy because of the threat of Islamic violence, aren't we in Catch-22 under which the terrorists have won?

David Nakamura: To play devil's advocate: Are the actions on both sides of the world not a chicken-egg scenario at this point?


Not much difference: Really, what is the difference between an overblown reaction to an overblown story in Afghanistan, leading to protests . . . and our consistent news cycle of overblown, poorly sourced reporting here in the U.S., often leading to protests or strongly worded condemnations by politicians and talk show blowhards?

Howard Kurtz has said that newspapers NEED to jump on stories right as they unfold, regardless of the facts, to avoid having another news agency get the jump on them. Is it really worth it to get a jump on another agency at the sacrifice of fact-checking? Going strictly for page views has seriously deteriorated the quality of news - you can't really believe anything reported as "breaking news" because you know that there hasn't been time for due diligence to have been done.

And by the time it comes out that the original "facts" are all wrong, or that something really isn't that big of a deal, the fickle public has turned their demanding, ignorant eyes towards the next news bubble. Sad how prescient the movie "Idiocracy" is.

David Nakamura: Our hyper-speed news cycle is certainly a well-tread topic of consternation, among the general public and in my newsrooms and every other across the U.S. (and beyond). We have to judge "breaking" stories against the need to be accurate and thorough and fair. I think many of us strive for a good balance. But certainly there are mistakes and there is a pack mentality that can drive coverage aggressively toward stories that might need more context. That you have the President weighing in, however, means it is certainly a story worth covering.


Alexandria, Va.: A serious question from a veteran:

Does this revivalist minister in Florida actually understand that he is personally causing the deaths of U.S. service members in the Muslim world? Is it possible that he is simply a monumental idiot and really doesn't get it?

He's the leader of an extreme Protestant sect; he doesn't respect any other church authority (he personally has given speeches about how the Pope is the "anti-Christ" and a "pretender"), so when religious leaders condemn him, he seems to interpret that as proof that he's on the right track.

David Nakamura: Thanks Alexandria, for the question and your service. ... I'd have to say that now having spent time in Afghanistan, I sort of wish everyone who might think of taking such an action as Terry Jones would spend time here or in other countries to be able to get a broader understanding of what U.S. troops and others are seeing and feeling. Perhaps Mr. Jones has spent time here, so I won't prejudge, but it can change ones views if one has first-hand knowledge and experience.


Chicago Ill.: Suicide bomb attacks against mosques, and against Muslim worshippers, seem to be a frequent phenomenon in Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Islamic world. Aren't Korans destroyed in those attacks? My point is -- radical Islamic terrorists routinely target holy sites throughout the Muslim world and it's just background noise; one dope in Florida plans to burn a couple books and suddenly it's doomsday. Why the double standard? Thanks.

David Nakamura: Well, I hardly would call the suicide bombings of mosques background noise. We cover them in the Post quite often. Yes, news makes more of an impact when it's local, so a Florida church has more immediately and relevancy for American audiences. Certainly, moderate Muslims who live with these attacks on their mosques understand the damage that radical Islam can do and denounce it. I covered a suicide bombing my first week here, and went back to the neighborhood a day later to talk to residents. They were outraged -- at the insurgents who carried it out, but also the American/International forces who remain in their neighborhoods but whom they don't feel protect them. I wrote about it here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/13/AR2010081305821.html


A Free Country: If a bully threatened your son if he wore his favorite teenage mutant turtles t-shirt to school, would you tell your son that he'd better not wear the shirt out of fear of provoking the bully?

That's what our government officials' response to the threat of radical violence in retaliation for a private citizen exercising his constitutional rights sound like.

Appeasing a bully isn't the answer to the problem of bullying.

Conversely, maybe Muslims consider the pastor to be the bully in this case. What do you tell your son if a bully threatens to burn his own t-shirt? Ignore it, don't give the bully the satisfaction of a reaction.

David Nakamura: Many Muslims will not react violently toward Americans or anyone else if this church carries through on the burning. Most won't. But some might. And that could make the job of the NATO troops more difficult in an already immensely challenging job. ... I have a story written that might be published soon about the Karzai Administration worried that they have lost the support of an influential group of 3,000 clerics here which they are counting on to help reintegrate Taliban fighters. This act of burning Korans might not help in that regard.


Austin, Tex.: I think your response to using "Ground Zero Mosque" is a cop-out. It is the same as using "death panels" in quotes. Knowing there were no death panels doesn't justify putting quotes around something just as putting quotes around GZM doesn't justify the use of the expression. Yes, people do now use GZM as shorthand, but that is because journalists and pundits constantly referred to the location that way. It should be the responsibility of old media to adhere to the ethics of their profession, rather than to let new media drive stories and use "shorthand" even as it is wrong. I know that "the site of the former Burlington Coat factory two blocks from Ground Zero" is a little wordy, as Community Center is more wordy than Mosque, but come on.

David Nakamura: Fair point and I honestly appreciate your view on this.


Another aspect: I think another aspect of the issue, and maybe you can clarify as a reporter, is that there doesn't seem to be any sense of responsibility on the part of many reporters. They are there to report on situations and issues, get quotes . . . all of which I understand, but is there no journalistic integrity check that demands reporters refute untruths in the very article in which they are reporting? If they are writing down quoted lies, which then get published, who refutes the lies?

"Death panels" come to mind -- reported ad nauseum . . . a smidgen of research could have shown that Sarah Palin intentionally chose words that would ignite a firestorm she could manipulate, which worked. Around and around the story went, when it seems it could have been decisively shut down by the people reporting it, since it was indeed false. Are reporters really only held to a standard of writing down what they hear, even if there are conflicting facts, or does something have to veer out of control to get investigative reporters on the job?

David Nakamura: Yes, we absolutely have a responsibility to check facts and provide context. At times, however, we reporters are also in the middle of a fast-moving story in which we are not aware of what the outcome will be--so that making sense of what we see and hear isn't always possible in the most contextual way. How long, for example, do we wait to hear back from other sources who might provide additional context before we report on a protest in which things are getting set on fire and police have responded in force? These are judgment calls for every reporter and news organization.


15 min of fame: I think the pastor of the church is more concerned with his 15 minutes of fame than the safety of Christians and Americans abroad. Do you think he'd be angry if the Bible was burned in anger? He seemed unhappy when he mentioned it on that CNN interview.

David Nakamura: I have no idea what the pastor's motive is. But I'm sure he's under tremendous pressure right now to call off his planned event. And I can tell you that reporters here in Kabul and other Muslim areas are planning for how to cover the story if he goes through with it.


Houston Tex.: Perhaps it is time for the Radical Islamic terrorists to realize that the rest of the world is tired of their corruption and intolerance of other religions. If they stopped their hatred and attacks on others then no one would bother them. As long as radicals attack other religions, destroy places of worship and act in a mentally challenged manner they will never be accepted by the world community. The radicals have caused this even to happen, they alone are responsible for the results or their actions.

David Nakamura: There are radical Muslims who have carried out outrageous, violent acts that have been strongly condemned by other Muslims and have been protested in the West. Just the reverse of what have in this situation.


Alexandria, Va.: David, do you think there is any chance that the media will NOT cover this proposed Koran burning with film and video should it happen?

David Nakamura: Let me break a bit of news here: From sources close to the situation, the Associated Press has issued an internal bulletin stating that it will not carry images of the Koran burning out of concern that it incite violence. That's not to say they won't cover it -- they have and will -- but they will not show the images, which probably have the most ability to inflame.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Clearly this pastor just is doing this as a publicity stunt. Here's a novel idea - why do you just treat it as such, and realize this guy that has a following of 30-50 followers is not worthy of covering? Why can't the media just agree to a blackout?

David Nakamura: If the media agreed to a blackout, I'm sure there would be an angry reaction from the public that we collude to ignore important stories in favor of Hollywood fluff. And what about the local Gainesville, Fla., newspaper? Should that paper and its Web site -- accessible to anyone -- ignore it?


Des Moines, Iowa: Hi Dave---Dave May here! I see some comments suggesting the media "created" this story, but what got me interested was David Patraeus's suggestion that American security could be compromised by the burning. Do you have a sense of what role the general's comments played in focusing media attention on it? More importantly, do you have any independent sense of whether Patraeus's concerns are founded? Thanks! Go Mizzou! ITB.

David Nakamura: Hi Dave -- Thanks for checking in. Yes, I think Gen. Petraeus' comments lifted this story to a new level of interest and concern. And that led to a flow of condemnations from other well-known politicians and commentators and activist, leading to the President today. Naturally that drove the story higher and higher up the front page and news Web sites. As for the real danger that troops might be in -- it's unknowable but the concern is not just for Saturday but also that such an action could accelerate an ebbing of support for the U.S. mission here.


Texas: It is easy to blame the media (and I do) for the over-hype of certain stories -- bubble boy, Sherrod, Ground Zero Mosque, but the fact of the matter is the media would not cover things as they do if there wasn't a market for it. I was annoyed that the media jumped on every word or tweet that Palin said, no matter how untrue or ridiculous, because it caused page views. I myself would read these and laugh -- until I realized I was added to the problem. As long as WE, the end user of media, click or read these useless stories, we have the same responsibility as the journos and pundits who talk and write about them. I am now Palin celibate and Ground Zero celibate. If I need to know the status of the Cordoba House Community Center I click on the site that uses the proper name. Yes, I am sickeningly righteous. Now, if I could break my habit of these chats, my life would be so much simpler.

David Nakamura: Texas, you make a good point. Media writes what people should know and what people want to know. So the audience obviously drives at least half of news coverage, maybe well more.


Boston, Mass.: I find it offensive when any group burns books. Even though I am a Muslim I find this less offensive because I know it is just a publicity stunt by some extreme small-time preacher in Florida. It would have been best to just ignore the whole thing, but it seems now a days that any extreme action gets a life of its own through the Internet no matter how small the group is.

David Nakamura: We journalists don't like book burning so much either... The written word is important.


David Nakamura: Thanks all for the wonderful questions and discussion. Please stay tuned at The Post's Web site and, if so inclined, follow me @davidnakamura and my colleague Ernesto Londono @londonoe on Twitter for more updates as this and other stories unfold.


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