Quran-burning plans by Florida church come on rising tide of anti-Islamic bigotry

A Florida church says it intends to follow through with plans to burn copies of the Quran on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks despite warnings from top U.S. officials that the action presents a risk to American soldiers.

"It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan," Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said this week.

Also speaking out against the church's plans are the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which issued a statement yesterday saying the U.S. government "in no way condones such acts of disrespect against the religion of Islam"; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who during yesterday's annual State Department iftar dinner denounced it as a "disgraceful act"; and Attorney General Eric Holder, who during a private meeting this week with Muslim and other religious leaders called the plans "idiotic and dangerous."

The Quran-burning is being organized by Gainesville's Dove World Outreach Center, a charismatic Christian church with a controversial history. The church's leaders, Terry and Sylvia Jones, have engaged in anti-Islamic activities before -- such as erecting a lawn sign (pictured above) and distributing T-shirts to members that say "Islam is of the Devil." Terry Jones is also the author of a book by the same name.

Yesterday, Terry Jones told CNN that the church, which has only about 50 members, has "firmly made up our mind" to go through with the Quran-burning -- though they are "definitely praying about it."

The church's plans have sparked a reaction from Gainesville, a progressive college town that's home to the University of Florida and Santa Fe College. City officials have denied the church a permit for the event, saying the open burning of books is not allowed under its ordinances. Mayor Craig Lowe has condemned the organization, calling it a "tiny fringe group and an embarrassment to our community," and endorsed a request to name Sept. 11 "Interfaith Solidary Day" by the Gainesville Interfaith Forum, which is also organizing a "Gathering for Peace, Understanding and Hope" on Sept. 10. In addition, concerned citizens of Gainesville have started an online petition asking that the Quran-burning be scrapped.

Religious leaders and groups elsewhere have also spoken out against the the Dove World Outreach Center's plans. They include the National Association of Evangelicals, which said the action "would exacerbate tensions between Christians and Muslims throughout the world" and urged its cancellation.

The planned Quran-burning is part of a broader upsurge in anti-Islamic sentiment across the United States, with protests over planned mosques and Islamic community centers in New York City, California and Wisconsin, as well as the stabbing of a Muslim cabdriver in Manhattan and an incident in which the son of a founder of a mosque in Waterport, N.Y. was sideswiped by a sport utility vehicle days after shots were fired near the building.

But the South has not been immune to the recent outbreak of anti-Muslim bigotry:

* In Mayfield, Ky., more than 250 local residents cheered after the zoning board rejected a petition last month from a group of Somali immigrants seeking to build a mosque.

* Federal authorities are investigating a fire that damaged equipment at the construction site of a planned Islamic center and mosque near Murfreesboro, Tenn. late last month. A sign announcing the new center has been vandalized twice.

* Earlier this year, an Islamic center and mosque in Nashville, Tenn. was vandalized, with a letter left at the site calling Muslims "friends of Satan" out to destroy the United States.

* At a campaign stop in Chattanooga, Tenn. during the GOP gubernatorial primary, candidate and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he was unsure whether Islam -- the world's second-largest religion -- was actually a real religion or a "cult."

Since 9/11, federal law enforcement agencies have investigated over 800 incidents involving violence, threats, vandalism and arson against Muslims and others perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin. Federal charges have been brought against 48 defendants with 44 convictions to date in cases that include the burning down of the Islamic Center in Columbia, Tenn., which resulted in lengthy prison sentences for three men with connections to a white-supremacist group; the throwing of incendiary devices at a mosque in El Paso, Texas, which netted a man more than 14 years in prison; and a plot to destroy the Islamic Education Center of St. Petersburg, Fla., which brought substantial prison sentences for four people.

The Department of Justice is investigating a number of the recent anti-Muslim crimes, including the stabbing of the cabdriver as well as the incidents at the mosques in California, Waterport, N.Y., Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Arlington, Texas.

The growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the South comes despite the faith's deep roots in the region, which can be traced back to slavery. Historians estimate that as many as 15 percent of Africans brought to America in chains were Muslims. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia defended the religious freedom of Muslims, as president participating in an iftar with the Tunisian ambassador and writing in his autobiography:
"[When] the [Virginia] bill for establishing religious freedom... was finally passed,... a singular proposition proved that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word 'Jesus Christ,' so that it should read 'a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.' The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination."
In response to the rising tide of Islamophobia, the Council on American-Islamic Relations has launched a national ad campaign to challenge anti-Muslim bigotry that features Muslim first responders to the 9/11 attacks. You can watch one of the PSAs here:

(Photo of anti-Islamic lawn sign from the Dove World Outreach Center's website.)