Today, a lot of attention was devoted to an anti-Islam film that may have played a causal role in recent anti-U.S. protests in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia. For the record, I am skeptical that this film actually motivated the attack in Libya, which seems to have been planned in advance, but its role in motivating the Egypt and Tunisia protests is more plausible. The U.S. military is taking the anti-Islam film seriously enough that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called Florida pastor Terry Jones on Wednesday and “asked him to withdraw his support” for the film. Jones didn’t serve as the film’s producer, as was erroneously reported early on, but had planned to show it on his website. Dempsey’s major concern is the possibility for the film provoking violence in Afghanistan: when Jones was responsible for the burning of a Qur’an in March 2011, it caused deaths at a U.N. compound in Mazar-e Sharif.
It’s unclear if Jones will withdraw his support for the film. However, it is clear that one otherwise inconsequential man holding American foreign policy hostage (albeit to a small yet deadly degree) through his actions is going to be an ongoing part of twenty-first century diplomacy, something that has been enabled through advances in communication technology. I wrote about Jones, and his previous stunt, in Bin Laden’s Legacy. My analysis there remains applicable in light of this new incident:
There are, of course, many clear advantages to advances in communication technology. Important voices that would have been marginalized or ignored two decades ago have been able to play a role in public debates. At its best, access to numerous competing sources of information can produce instantaneous fact-checking and expose one to a diversity of perspectives, thus producing more accurate and nuanced analysis. But there is also a clear dark side to these advances. They not only empower deserving voices that illuminate otherwise neglected aspects of an issue, they can also empower the voices of those who don’t really deserve a podium: the bigots, the demagogues, and the charlatans.
Even one individual can hold America’s foreign policy hostage to some degree. This was the case with Terry Jones, an obscure Florida pastor who became a major international news story in September 2010 when he threatened to burn a Qur’an. Even General David Petraeus weighed in on Jones’s threats, arguing that burning Islam’s holy book would endanger U.S. forces. Although Jones didn’t follow through on his threat in 2010, in March 2011 he organized a mock trial of the Qur’an in which he served as the judge. (This “trial” also featured attorneys for the prosecution and defense, as well as witnesses.) At the end, Jones declared the Qur’an guilty, and it was set aflame.
Less than two weeks later, an angry crowd in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, attacked a U.N. compound and killed at least eight people. Although there were multiple responsible parties for this outbreak of violence—not least the crowd itself, as well as President Hamid Karzai—this illustrates how one lone extremist can cause deaths halfway around the world and threaten critical U.S. foreign-policy objectives. One aid worker in Afghanistan commented at the time, “This is not the beginning of the end for the international community in Afghanistan. This is the end. Terry Jones and others will continue to pull anti-Islam stunts and opportunistic extremists here will use those actions to incite attacks against foreigners. Unless we, the internationals, want our guards to fire on unarmed protesters from now on, the day has come for us to leave Afghanistan.”
It will be virtually impossible to stop rogue individuals like Jones from igniting similar controversies. Their impact can be mitigated, but one reality of life in the early twenty-first century is that lone nuts can influence geopolitics in ways they couldn’t have twenty years ago. In 1991, Jones would most likely have been consigned to the letters-to-the-editor section of the local newspaper, his Qur’an-burning antics earning no more than local exposure.
Stunts like this will have international ramifications again in the future, and lives will be lost as a result. This new dynamic needs to be understood, and deserves serious discussion.