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'Burn a Quran' pastor puts all at risk

By Anthony Coley, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Anthony Coley: Both parties, generals, religious leaders denounce plan to burn Quran
  • Pastor's plan would galvanize violent extremists, put U.S. and troops in danger, Coley says
  • Coley argues Jones is an extremist with no regard for consequences of his actions
  • President Obama, ex-presidents should deliver message of tolerance, Coley says

Editor's note: Anthony Coley is the former communications director and chief spokesman for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine. He works as a director at the Brunswick Group, a communications consulting firm. Follow him at http://twitter.com/AnthonyColey/.

(CNN) -- Rarely do Democrats, Republicans, veterans, military generals and leaders of differing religions and denominations come together to condemn an act that has not even happened.

Yet there are those occasions when the security of our nation and safety of our troops demand it. This is one of those times.

On Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, says he will burn copies of Islam's most sacred and revered book, the Holy Quran. In Islam, the Quran is viewed as the eternal and literal word of God and any mishandling or mistreatment of it is considered extremely offensive.

The Rev. Terry Jones, pastor of Dove World Outreach Center, says that the intent of his "International Burn a Quran Day" is to send a message to Islamic radicals that Americans are not afraid of their threats and that "if you attack us, we will attack you."

Jones is an out-of-touch extremist who apparently has no regard for the consequences of his actions. His radical interpretation of Christianity would unnecessarily antagonize violent and extremist elements of Islam, an honorable religion. Caught in the cross hairs are more than 90,000 American troops, who with our NATO allies, are charged with the difficult task of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and defeating al Qaeda, the radical movement responsible for the September 11 attacks.

Gen. David Petraeus, the respected four-star general overseeing our Afghan war efforts, is especially concerned:

An American citizen and self-described Christian, Jones is displaying attributes expected of neither.
--Anthony Coley
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"Images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan and around the world to inflame public opinion and incite violence .... [It] would put our troopers and civilians in jeopardy and undermine our efforts to accomplish the critical mission in Afghanistan," Petraeus told reporters this week.

The mere rumor of Americans burning copies of the Quran has garnered a swift and fierce response. Leading news organizations at home and abroad are covering the debate intensely.

On Tuesday, Muslims in Kabul, Afghanistan, were seen shouting, "Death to America. Death to Obama," while throwing stones at a passing American envoy. A leading imam told The Washington Post, "If they decide to burn the Holy Quran, I will announce jihad [holy war] against these Christians and infidels. We will defend the Holy Quran."

This is serious stuff, with severe consequences. Which is why Jones' planned protest is so perplexing. An American citizen and self-described Christian, Jones is displaying attributes expected of neither. Americans are tolerant and welcoming. Jesus was full of love and compassion.

At its core, this protest is mean-spirited, divisive and intolerant. It's a shortsighted, provocative act that will set back efforts to win the hearts and minds of Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the world. Moreover, the stunt will create a new tool for radical Islamic propaganda. Think about the new recruitment video al Qaeda will create featuring images of Americans burning the Holy Quran.

We are in a war, two to be exact, and Jones' antagonistic act would raise the stakes significantly when anti-Muslim sentiment is already at an all-time high.

If he moves forward with the protest, we should use the occasion to show the world's 1.5 billion Muslims what America is really about.

Video: Obama: Quran demo 'destructive'
Video: Local churches try to stop burning
Video: No permit to burn Qurans?
Video: Pastor: Quran burning will happen

Imagine for the moment if President Obama, flanked by all former living presidents and top Muslim leaders and imams from around the country, delivered an uplifting and inspiring message of American inclusion and tolerance in the Rose Garden. The image, one of national unity and mutual respect, would be poignant; the message, clear: Religious freedom and diversity doesn't just make America. It makes us strong.

Or perhaps former President George W. Bush and Obama could release a joint statement condemning the demonstration. After 9/11, the Bush administration went to great lengths to combat rising "Islamaphobia." He has rightly been praised for those actions. Given that history, it would be appropriate for Bush to speak out if this unfortunate event happens. Out of respect for the current president, Bush has been mostly quiet since he left office.

Although Bush is not the most beloved American politician abroad, he and his administration did earn the respect of thousands of Muslims in America and beyond for those efforts.

Such a joint statement is without precedent, but we are headed to unfamiliar territory -- with troops in harm's way. A unified country, represented by the current and former presidents, from opposing political parties, would help do what no one else can -- blunt the radical, un-American and un-Christian message of Jones.

In addition, it would also help give new energy to Obama's message to the Muslim world in June 2009:

"The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God's vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anthony Coley.