Now Just Suspended

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It's bizarre watching this saga of threatened mass Koran-burning on 9/11 unfold. As I write this, it could still happen - again. The meta story from the NYT does not seem to me to be a massive indictment of the media. Stunts get covered all the time - with little attention. Think of Fred Phelps, a truly marginal figure whose outrageous stunts against gay people and military funerals have been extensively covered for years. What seems to me to have given this latest excrescence greater exposure was the context of the engineered controversy over the Cordoba mosque in the Park51. Islamists abroad - much more numerous but just as fanatical as the fringe Christianists - did the rest.

We live in an era of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism, exploited, used and manipulated by politicians, for their own purposes, and used by the media for its own. This has always been a dangerous and toxic combination, inimical to liberal society, dangerous to secular democratic politics, and today, something that can also lead to global warfare and destruction on an unimaginable scale. This blog has long warned of its dangers and consequences - and yet the role of religious fanaticism in politics only seems to grow, thanks to cynical Republicans and weak-kneed Democrats.

The new media, moreover, makes it especially combustible and unstoppable, whatever the mainstream media decides to cover or not cover. Does anyone think it will matter if the AP does not cover the now "suspended" but possible burnings? Anyone with a cell-phone camera can send these images within seconds across the globe. Any bigot can incite mass violence in a culture already primed for it. And so there is something almost inevitable about the atrocity in front of us. And sure, enough, Fred Phelps is now threatening to burn Korans this weekend if Terry Jones does not.

My point, I suppose, is that this kind of cycle in this kind of environment is something that once started, no one can stop. It is a function of fringe Christian fundamentalism finally engaging fringe Islamist fundamentalism in a war of increasing terror and intolerance in a seamless global media world. It is the responsibility of all of us of actual faith rather than fanaticism to stand up and oppose this before it engulfs us all.

But you reap what you sow. You turn a benign Muslim community center into a "stab in the heart" of Americans (in Sarah Palin's words) and someone soon will up the ante. Which is why this summer has felt so ominous to me; and the forces itching for full-scale religious warfare more powerful and more unstoppable than any of the restraints in between - from the West Bank to Kandahar and Gainesville and Wasilla. One can hope and pray that this flare-up will be a warning prevented in time for the culture to take a deep breath and understand the consequences of religious fundamentalism openly embraced in the public square. But hope is scarce in this environment.

Or we are seeing forces that cannot ultimately be stopped by anyone - until they have wrought the hideous consequences so many zealots on all sides desire.

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