Analysis: Koran burning set to stoke communal strains

By William Maclean, Security Correspondent

LONDON (BestGrowthStock) – Television pictures of a U.S. pastor tossing Korans onto a bonfire on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks would fit neatly into al Qaeda’s populist message that Islam is under assault from an imperialist West.

But damage could well extend beyond the realm of propaganda, producing religious and communal violence of the kind generated by past controversies involving perceived mockery of Islam.

Experts examining the risk of strife say much will depend on positions staked out in the remaining two days by prominent players in the furor: Religious radicals apparently seeking to stir up division, and others, most notably the U.S. government, trying to shore up tolerance and understanding.

“My advice to Muslims is to reflect the teachings of Islam and just ignore the burning,” Noman Benotman, a Libyan former associate of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden who now campaigns against Islamist radicalization, told Reuters.

He acknowledged this could be a tall order, because passions had been stirred up.

“There is a lot of hatred. The political environment is so loaded. So it will be a potential problem. Already you’re seeing mobilization of activists in the past few days.”

Terry Jones, the leader of a tiny Protestant church in Gainesville, Florida, plans to burn copies of the Islamic holy book on Saturday, saying he regards the act as a way of confronting Islamist terrorism.

Jones’s threat has helped deepen tensions generated by a heated debate over construction of an Islamic community center and mosque near the main September 11 attack site in Manhattan.

Opponents of the plan say it is insensitive to families of the victims of the attacks by al Qaeda.

DEADLY PROTESTS

In such an inflammatory atmosphere, many fear Jones’s action could revive the violence that followed the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in Danish newspapers in 2005.

The images sparked deadly protests in Muslim countries in 2006 in which about 50 people were killed.

However, such unrest is not inevitable, analysts say.

With Muslim sensitivities highly attuned, much will depend on the precise words spoken and actions taken by Western governments and the various lobby groups involved.

The cartoons are a case in point.

Critics of Islamist groups say the unrest happened only several months after the initial publication, after Danish imams travelled to Muslim countries to publicize the drawings and incite anger among Muslims internationally.

Critics have described their actions as manipulative.

Supporters of Islamist groups counter the imams only began their travels after Danish Muslim communities had concluded that Danish officials were turning a deaf ear to their complaints.

They also noted violence escalated only after some newspapers in several other countries published and republished the cartoons, which helped to keep emotions elevated.

In the latest controversy, both sides are working hard to promote their own view of the Koran burning.

“ONLY A MATTER OF TIME”

Radical Islamists say it is part of an onslaught against Islam. For their part, U.S. religious, political and military leaders have roundly condemned the plan, with President Barack Obama saying it would give “a recruitment bonanza” to al Qaeda.

Brynjar Lia, an expert on Islamist ideology at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, said the U.S. condemnation would be effective in easing tensions because it was unequivocal.

Unlike the cartoons’ case, the West’s position appeared not to be hamstrung by any concern over freedom of speech.

Anjem Choudary, a British Islamist who plans to burn U.S. flags in London to protest against Jones’s plan, told Reuters that the media had also played a role, albeit indirectly, in the latest furor by reporting Jones’s plans extensively.

“If it was just him and his community, and other people were not aware of it, then it would be different,” he said.

“But the more high profile this Koran burning becomes, then suddenly it becomes more universal and it does need a response.”

Al Qaeda itself has yet to pronounce on the Koran burning, or the mosque controversy, but analysts expect it wishes to exploit any resultant Muslim unease. It has long called on minority U.S. Muslims to reject the West, preferably violently.

In a “Message to the American People” in March 2010, leading al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki said growing anti-Muslim U.S. sentiment meant the country would become “a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps” for Muslims.

Bill Braniff, a senior expert at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said the remark by Yemen-based Awlaki was “very insidious and vague: He cannot point to religious intolerance, in March 2010, and so he has to point to a future of religious intolerance.”

“It’s a smart ploy because if it’s wrong it doesn’t matter, because no one is going to call him on it. But if he’s right, he can say ‘see, I told you it was only a matter of time’.”

(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)

Analysis: Koran burning set to stoke communal strains