BOB GARFIELD: While media fervor over Pastor Terry Jones’ “Burn a Koran Day” reached a crescendo in America this week, political science professor and foreign policy blogger Marc Lynch says that the Arab world has been following the story for more than a month. According to Lynch, this story, along with the ongoing argument over the Park 51 Community Center in Lower Manhattan, has poisoned the well of mainstream Muslim opinion towards the U.S. and undermined our attempts at Middle East diplomacy.
MARC LYNCH: This story really only hit American media, you know, a few days ago, maybe when General Petraeus weighed in. But it’s been a big issue over in the Arab media for weeks. And in the middle of August, you got condemnations of the pastor by Al-Azhar University in Cairo and by the Muslim World League in Mecca. And those generated huge amounts of commentary and discussion in the Jihadist forums, in the TV stations, everywhere. And it’s really feeding some of the worst stereotypes that are being pushed by extremists in the Middle East.
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned extremists, and I want to ask you about that. I'm curious what Jihadi forums have had to say, mainly because it seems to me that had this pastor not decided to burn the Koran but instead decided to do a walkathon for leukemia, the Jihadists wouldn't be any less condemning of anything American. Does burning a Koran change their worldview in any way?
MARC LYNCH: No, not in the slightest. For the extremists, this is material to be used. The impact is on the mainstream. You know, they look at this kind of thing and it starts to raise questions. It really undermines a lot of the things both the Bush administration and the Obama administration have been trying to get out there. At the same time, you do have a certain number of columnists who are pointing to the existence of the debates. And I think some of the statements that are being made by our top politicians and officials, like Mayor Bloomberg, that’s having a real effect also, in terms of showing that there’s some real diversity in American opinion.
BOB GARFIELD: And the willingness to tolerate even the most obnoxious speech.
MARC LYNCH: There’s less of a First Amendment kind of argument resonating over there. It’s more the idea that America’s not a monolith. You've got Al-Qaeda and extremist groups who are trying to claim that what’s going on is that the West is at war with Islam. And when you have very prominent, influential voices saying that this is not what America stands for, that we repudiate this, that we condemn it, that really does help to disrupt the narrative that Al-Qaeda and people like that are trying to put forward.
BOB GARFIELD: This is an expression of American freedom and, in a way, pluralism, and just as this guy is free to set fire to a book, others are free to say what they will and practice religions as they will. Tell me again why this isn't an ad for why America is good.
MARC LYNCH: The thing to remember is that this doesn't happen in a vacuum. This has become a major story in the aftermath of the controversy around the mosque in New York and what’s widely seen as this rising wave of anti-Islam agitation across the United States. So there’s a wider context here, and that’s the reason that this guy in Florida, people are receiving him as simply one more manifestation of this wider issue.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there any sense in what you’re reading that this obscure pastor represents the mainstream of American sentiment?
MARC LYNCH: That’s the real problem, is that all of these different things blur together. You might see people who were very public faces of the protest against the mosque in New York who are now speaking out against the burning of the Koran, but that doesn't really break through, because for many people who are both in the Arab media and/or consuming the Arab media, it all bleeds together. These are all different aspects of this rising anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, I guess that various incidents like this can ignite outrage throughout the Muslim world. But once again I seem to be missing the outrage, not over burning books but about violence that is perpetrated in Islam’s name. On the anniversary of 9/11, are you seeing any evidence of lingering outrage about that?
MARC LYNCH: This is one of those things which I see as an absolute tragedy because if you look at the broad trends over the last few years, Al-Qaeda has been increasingly marginal in the Arab world. You've seen growing denunciations of violent extremism from across the political spectrum. You could have imagined this being a moment when the sorts of things that you’re asking about, all of that had the opportunity to be there. Unfortunately, because of the events of the last month or two, the frame through which this year’s 9/11 is going to be interpreted is going to be almost entirely this frame of anger and frustration over what they see as rising anti-Islamic extremism.
BOB GARFIELD: So the controversies have usurped introspection.
MARC LYNCH: It really has. And a lot of the gains that have been made over the last few years, under Bush and Obama, you know, they really do risk just being swept away by this escalating anger. So I don't think it’s a coincidence that you see National Security officials from the last administration and this one really stepping forward and saying, you know, this is really becoming a problem for us.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Marc, as always, thank you so much.
MARC LYNCH: Thanks for having me on.
BOB GARFIELD: Marc Lynch is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and blogger for Foreign Policy Magazine.
"Pick Up (Four Tet Remix)"
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