Fahrenheit 451, Park 51, and Mainstreaming Hate

America underestimated Terry Jones.

The pastor who planned to set the Qur’an aflame has revealed a razor-sharp political instinct, one that will advance his cause regardless of whether the bonfire takes place.

When the nation’s top military, civilian, and religious leaders descended upon Jones with scorn and fury, the mean-spirited and mustachioed Floridian realized that he was in dire straits. Even the voices of hate—whose opposition to Park 51 serves as cover for a broader anti-Islamic agenda—kept Jones at a safe remove.

But Jones was not to be outdone. Through some impressive acrobatics, he ensnared a well-meaning but credulous local imam into “mediating” between Jones and Park 51’s imam, Feisal Rauf. Jones soon declared that the Qur’an-burning extravaganza was off because he had struck a deal to achieve the unimaginable—relocate Park 51.

That nothing of the sort happened was irrelevant. After letting the fake news percolate long enough to be discredited, Jones bounced back into his media spotlight and insisted that he had been betrayed by the sneaky Muslims. The images on television of Jones occupying one half the screen and an imam on the other subtly elevated Jones from a position of insanity to something approaching credibility.

The anti-Muslim faction took it from there. While feigning disapproval for the pastor’s planned pyrotechnics, the zealots alighted upon their now-enhanced equivalency: burning a Qur’an would be hurtful—just like building Park 51.

“People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to,” Sarah Palin intoned, “but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation—much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.”

Palin was echoed by GOP speaker-in-waiting John Boehner, who admonished both Jones and Rauf with a disingenuous lecture that conflated one man’s actions with the other’s.

According to the prevailing calculus, a book-burning is now “much like” a symbol of interfaith dialogue.

How did it come to this?

When a gaggle of Israeli zealots, white supremacists, and professional Islamophobes first manufactured outrage over Park 51, few cared about their backgrounds. The man who has led his flock in New York for 20 years was smeared as a radical and foreign element by radicals who are funded by foreigners—but those whose skin color and “Judeo-Christian” background privilege them above the Other.

Even when attacks on Muslims and mosques nowhere near Ground Zero rendered the “sensitivity to September 11th” line absurd, public opinion did not shift in support of the Muslim center. As it turns out, that’s because a plurality of the public is itself prejudiced against Muslims, proximity to Ground Zero be damned.

Against this backdrop, Terry Jones has served a valuable function: anyone slightly less radical than a man who wants to make a bonfire out of religious books can now appear reasonable in his own eyes and in the eyes of his peers.

And thus, further down the rabbit hole we go.

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam also posts at his website, Crossing the Crescent.