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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: All the fanatics are our enemies

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Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Church (congregation 30) in Gainesville, Florida, doesn't look like a terrorist mastermind.

With his hound dog features and overgrown moustache, he looks more like a cross between actor Walter Matthau and Yosemite Sam, the bewhiskered and irascible Looney Tunes cartoon character.

And little in Jones's background foreshadows his emergence as a Christian equivalent of the militant mullahs and incendiary imams preaching holy war.

Kicked out of a church he formed in Cologne, Germany, for not keeping his messiah complex under control, Jones returned home as just another religious snake oil salesman with a fake degree looking for a cult to call his own.

Yet within the past seven months this nonentity who speaks for practically no one has orchestrated two successful provocations, in the process demonstrating a sound grasp of terrorist theory and practice.

His stunts have triggered violent, sometimes fatal disturbances in several countries, drawn condemnation from religious and political leaders around the world and forced members of the Obama administration from the president down to negotiate with him via the media.

The terrorist understands the centrality of the media in the global cyber-village in which perception is reality.

Every time a terrorist act is discussed, debated and analysed, every time the footage is run and re-run, it bolsters the perception of significance. And if everyone's talking about you, you must be important.

Aware of his own weakness and lack of legitimacy, the terrorist makes the media his battleground in the fight for sympathy, support and influence.

A standard tactic is to provoke the adversary into a heavy-handed response, thus validating the terrorist's propaganda narrative of justified resistance to oppression or hegemony.

So a suicide bomber kills a few soldiers at an army checkpoint, the army responds by torching a village suspected of rebel sympathies, women and children die, loathing of the regime intensifies, more recruits flock to the insurgency.

Jones wants to provoke Muslims into barbaric acts which can then be attributed to their beliefs. He burns a Koran; an Afghan mob obligingly storms a United Nations compound, killing eight aid workers.

Jones declined to accept responsibility for these deaths and the score of others in related violence throughout Afghanistan. Legally, he's right: he didn't behead anyone or incite others to do so.

Moral responsibility is another matter. A blogger on the Daily Telegraph website argued that blaming Jones for the aid workers' deaths was as ridiculous as blaming director Martin Scorsese for the attempt on Ronald Reagan's life because his film Taxi Driver inspired would-be assassin John Hinckley.

Really? First of all, Hinckley was insane; secondly, Scorsese wasn't repeatedly warned by people in a position to know that if he went ahead and made that film someone would shoot a politician.

Others fault the media for paying too much attention to an obvious attention-seeker, arguing that if his stunts had been ignored, people halfway around the world wouldn't have been provoked.

Most media outlets, no doubt conscious of the extent to which they did Jones's dirty work for him when he threatened to make a bonfire of 200 Korans last September, took a much more low-key approach this time around.

The burning of a single Koran was brought to Afghanistan's attention almost a fortnight after the event by the country's president, the wretched Hamid Karzai. Like many a leader of a Third World nation kept afloat by Western aid, Karzai finds it politically profitable to bite the hand that feeds him.

Besides the media can't function properly if it constantly second-guesses itself. A publish and be damned approach is irresponsible, but democracy wouldn't be well-served by a media that jumps at shadows and always errs on the side of caution.

No doubt people already that way inclined reached the conclusion Jones wanted them to reach, tarring a religion with 1.5 billion adherents with the crimes of a few zealots and illiterates who believe or are easily persuaded that an insult to Islam demands the slaughter of any non-Muslims they can lay their hands on.

Hopefully many more would have concluded that the real enemy is fanaticism, whatever the cause.

- NZ Herald

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