With his aborted Quran-burning publicity stunt, Terry Jones became an international celebrity, setting off a media firestorm that provoked deadly protests in Afghanistan and outpourings of anger around the world.
But by the time Jones swore off burning Islam’s holy book during an appearance on the Today Show, Gainesville residents were beginning to see signs that some good may come of it.
On Saturday evening, at a candlelight vigil scheduled to draw attention away from the display that never occurred, local Rabbi Dennis Shuman said that in matter of weeks, Jones had inadvertently helped spawn an interfaith network of mutual support that local religious leaders had been working to build for years.
“Just as a grain of sand can get inside an oyster and irritate it so badly it winds up producing a pearl, so has one small man, with the help of the media, produced a harmonious and loving gathering of the faithful here in Gainesville and around the country,” Shuman said.
Ismail ibn Ali, president of Islam on Campus at the University of Florida, said that in recent weeks, his group has built ties with other members of the local community that hadn’t previously existed. Ideally it wouldn’t have happened because of Jones, he said, but at least it happened.
What Mayor Craig Lowe described as “the real Gainesville” also came out in force on Friday, as nearly 1,000 people, including Lowe, took part in an interfaith gathering at a Methodist church just down the road from Jones’ Dove World Outreach Center.
And though the media still focused its attention on the darkened grounds of Dove World, which on Saturday drew hundreds of protesters opposed to Jones and his antics, the image of a tolerant community had begun to show through.
The outpouring of support has helped local Muslims cope with the ordeal, at a time when hostility toward their faith has been making national headlines, Ali said.
For all the scorn directed at Jones, many speakers at the weekend’s events also castigated the media, which some saw as his enablers.
“If he had just burned the books by himself, he would have failed,” Ali pointed out.
According to Ali, the whirlwind of attention surrounding Jones and his tiny congregation has fueled local interest in Islam, prompting people to ask questions about the faith Jones derided and the book he had threatened to burn.
Today the University of Florida will be hosting “Quran 101,” an open forum at which people can ask whatever questions they have about the text. The event is part of a series of educational events intended to teach people about the Islamic faith.
Teaching can make a difference. While poll after poll shows signs of increasing Islamophobia in America, those that bother to ask also find that the people most hostile to Islam tend to be those who know the least about it.
As ABC News discovered recently:
One thing that has not changed is unfamiliarity with Islam. Nearly two-thirds of Americans feel they don’t have a “good basic understanding” of the religion, essentially the same as it was in October 2001.
Significantly, people who feel they do understand Islam are much more likely to view it positively.
If Jones’ antics wind up provoking more people to learn about Islam, Ali said, they could prove to be “a blessing in disguise.”