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Freed hiker: Terry Jones endangers us all

By Sarah Shourd, Special to CNN
  • Sarah Shourd: Florida pastor who burned Quran plans protest at mosque on Good Friday
  • Shourd is not Muslim, but she was comforted by the Quran during imprisonment in Iran
  • Jones' action had an effect: Extremists used to it justify murders, she writes
  • Shourd: Jones breeds ill will and endangers Americans, including her friends still in jail

Editor's note: Sarah Shourd, a teacher, was freed from prison in Iran last year. Shourd, her fiance, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal were hiking in the mountains in northern Iraq in July 2009 and were arrested by Iranian border guards, accused of spying and imprisoned. Her companions remain in prison. To learn more, visit

(CNN) -- During my more than one year in solitary confinement in Iran, I read the Quran from cover to cover several times. While I am not a Muslim, in my most desperate hours I was comforted and uplifted by the wisdom it speaks.

When I came across the words "Truth hath come and falsehood hath vanished away. Verily, falsehood is ever certain to vanish" I was reminded of a line from the Bible, "Then you shall know the truth and truth shall set you free." That certainty helped keep my hopes alive that my suffering, and the suffering of my fiance, Shane Bauer, and our good friend Josh Fattal, would end.

Shortly before my release last September, I was horrified to learn from the English-language Iranian news I was allowed to watch every night that a Florida pastor, Terry Jones, planned to burn 200 copies of the Quran. I had never heard of Terry Jones but it was all too clear from where I was sitting how destructive this misguided act would be. Mr. Jones backed off but he went ahead with a Quran burning last month.

Now, he plans to protest on Good Friday outside the largest mosque in North America, the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, home to a large population of Arab- and Muslim-Americans. (Yesterday Dearborn denied him a permit, but he says his plans haven't changed.)

No matter how much the vast majority of Americans object to this public display of hatred, the shame of Mr. Jones' bigotry will reflect on us all. And so will its effects.

We cannot allow the confused and malicious ideology of a few individuals to define us.
--Sarah Shourd
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The last two years have been by far the worst in my life, but they have not changed my beliefs. As an American brought up in the Christian tradition, I was taught not only tolerance but also great respect for all religions. I have drawn wisdom from many faiths and find solace in the Muslim view that "There are as many paths to God as the children of Adam." The vast majority of Americans are tolerant and committed to religious freedom, and we cannot allow the confused and malicious ideology of a few individuals to define us.

The likes of Terry Jones have their counterparts everywhere. Their intention is to disrupt, create hysteria and engender fear. Their acts of extremism in turn encourage yet more extremism and acts of retaliation. Tragically, these few Americans have emboldened a tiny minority who distort Islam and use it to justify violence. We all saw the murder of 12 people at a United Nations compound in Afghanistan this month, and how their killers pointed to the Quran burning as a justification for their hideous crimes. The misguided act of burning a Quran cannot excuse such horrific violence but we cannot afford to be blind to cause and effect.

Acts of hatred in our own country put Americans living and traveling abroad in greater danger. Whether they be diplomats, journalists like my fiance, Shane, teachers like me and my friend Josh doing humanitarian work or simply well-intentioned travelers, a real risk exists that was unheard of a decade ago.

I spent more than a year in solitary confinement because I followed my curiosity. I went hiking in Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region of Iraq, where no American has been killed or kidnapped in recent decades. Often referred to as the "Other Iraq," it is a safe and beautiful tourist destination and not a war zone. While I am sure that many people in the Middle East sympathize with our suffering, I fear losing that sympathy if these destructive acts continue.

If Mr. Jones proceeds with his plans this Friday, I fear that innocent, well-intentioned people in Muslim lands, like Josh, Shane and countless others, will bear those consequences. Several groups have already applied for permits to stage counter-protests this Friday, and there will no doubt be many more people out there showing their opposition to Mr. Jones than out there with him. That is heartening and a great tribute to tolerance in America. But the question is: will these voices of reason be heard? Or will the rogue messengers of hate drown them out?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sarah Shourd.

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