Well, burn my Koran and call me extremist

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You'd think in America's bible belt there wouldn't be a big demand for copies of the Koran. But you can bet in Gainesville, Florida, they're flying off the shelves as fast as pregnancy tests after the school prom.

Because despite being denied a fire permit by the local fire chief, the Dove World Outreach Centre is planning a book burning session to mark the September 11, 2001 attacks. That's right, the church is hosting "International Burn a Koran Day".

It's anti-Islamic but it's not an isolated case. Muslims, who make up only about 2 per cent of the nation's population, are seeing their right to practise their religion challenged across the United States. And nowhere more than in New York's Lower Manhattan where plans to build a 13-storey Islamic centre have set off street protests and given Republicans a grandstanding opportunity that is too hard to resist.

Opponents, who say it is offensive to those who lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks, have labelled the centre the ground-zero mosque, even though it is more a centre with a prayer room and is two blocks away from the World Trade Centre site.

The American Muslims behind the project have given it the name Park51. No doubt opponents will point out that you only need to change a few of the letters around for it to read Death To America. The Islamic centre will cost US$100 million ($142 million) and feature, among other things, a swimming pool and basketball court.

If bomb-making facilities are planned, they've so far kept that quiet.

The driving force behind the project has been the Kuwaiti-born Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has been used by the Bush and Obama administrations to spread a message of religious tolerance in Muslim countries.

But to Republican Newt Gingrich he is an extremist trying to spread "moral confusion about the nature of radical Islamism".

On Fox News he likened building the centre to Nazis protesting next to Washington's Holocaust museum. He went on to say: "We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbour." What sort of site he was thinking of, I'm not sure. Maybe a Zen Buddhist temple. Or maybe just a sushi stand. Hard to say.

Park51 has already received the blessings of the city's Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. It also got a convoluted endorsement from President Barack Obama, who said he supported the group's right to build an Islamic centre but, struggling to convince Americans he is a Christian, tried to make it clear he wouldn't be worshipping there.

The opponents, though, are making the most noise. Republican cheerleader Sarah Palin, who, if she stands on tiptoes on the roof of her house in Alaska can see Iran, has called for "peace-seeking Muslims" to oppose the project. Interesting tactic. She obviously knows some Muslims have heard of peace and that some may even be seeking it. I wonder if she would ask Catholics who are not sexually attracted to children to oppose churches being built next to playgrounds in the wake of the scandals that have rocked the Vatican.

Even property mogul Donald Trump got in on the act during an interview this week before his Miss Universe Pageant. "I'm a big believer in freedom of religion but I think the mosque being in that location is absolutely wrong," he said. You know what Donald, I believe your comb-over is absolutely wrong, but it's your First Amendment right to do whatever you want with your hair, regardless of what religion you practise. Meanwhile, as America alienates a group of US citizens over where a mosque, if it can actually be called a mosque, should and should not be built, it continues to send soldiers to Afghanistan to win over the hearts and minds of Muslims who are seeing more and more of their friends and family killed as a result of the US presence in their country.

Unfortunately, that sometimes happens when you are battling extremists.

Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Centre knows all about extremists. He has hired an armed Christian organisation, Right Wing Extreme, to protect his church on International Burn a Koran Day. And no, it's not a Monty Python skit.

Right Wing Extreme founder Shannon Carson is right behind Jones. "We fully support Dove World Outreach Centre and its efforts to put an end to the notion that Islam is a peaceful religion," said Carson, who will be sending between 500 and 2000 men to make sure the book burning goes off without a hitch. "Islam is a violent cult with the goal of world domination."

Spoken like a true extremist.

- NZ Herald

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