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September 16, 2013

A Celebration of U.S. Diversity, Instead of Qur’an Burning

Last week, when Terry Jones decided to use his First Amendment right to freedom of speech, to insult Muslims by burning the Qur’an, he was met by a small group of activists in Florida who decided to use their First Amendment rights to peacefully disagree with him. Their effort overshadowed his plans.

A handful of activists in Polk County, Florida, joined forces to counter his hate and to celebrate America’s cultural and religious diversity. The small ceremony sets a clever model on how to respond to provocative blasphemy and offensive hate speech without violence. A colorful slice of American society was there, including Baptists, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, and atheists. Two local mayors, George Hatch and Gow Fields, spoke. Lt. Regina Moran from the Sheriff’s office called for mutual respect. A flag ceremony in memory of the victims of 9/11 was held, the national anthem was sung, and participants were invited to make blood donations to mark the importance of life and the tragedy from 12 years ago.

The event was an affirmation of diversity as an essential part of America’s identity. “It’s easy to condemn what we don’t like but it’s harder to find an alternative," said Suzanne Carter who created a “Not in Mulberry” Facebook page when she heard that Jones was coming to town. “We are not here to contest freedom of speech, but to give an alternative message to hate speech.” Carter's belief that ignoring violence or violent speech is condoning it, led her to join forces with Mike Ghouse, a Muslim inter-faith activist, to organize the event. Religion was also a motivating factor for Carter. “As a Christian, the bible teaches us to love our neighbors— it doesn’t say what our neighbor has to look like or believe in—it just says neighbor.”

Butch Rahman, a Polk county resident from South Lakeland who helped organize the event, cares about the U.S. image abroad. He has three sons in the U.S. military, including one serving in Afghanistan. He recalls the crisis at the Bagram base, where dozens of people were injured and killed in riots after Qur'anic materials were burned there in 2012. Butch is proud of Polk County’s response: “Terry Jones begged every property owner in Polk County to allow him to burn a religious text on their property—and not one person accepted. He is isolated on an island of hate. He does not represent us.”

When resident Bill McKinney initially allowed Terry Jones to burn 3000 Qu’rans on his property, Rahman’s 17-year old son Curtis (who recently enrolled in the U.S. military) knocked on his door to ask him why. They ended up chatting for 20 minutes and McKinney expressed his fear that Islam was “dangerous. ”Curtis responded: “No, Al-Qaida is dangerous, not Islam or Muslims.” This discussion was part of a campaign that a handful of Polk citizens undertook to explain to McKinney why burning Qur'ans was inappropriate. It worked.

Without a private location for his book burning, Jones applied for a permit to carry out his act in a public park, but the authorities denied the request because of safety concerns and because of the imprecise answers in the application. As it turned out, Jones was arrested on felony charges on his way to a park in Mulberry, FL for unlawful conveyance of fuel. He was towing a grill filled with 3000 Qur'ans soaked in kerosene.

But Jones isn’t the story here. Those who opposed him are. Blasphemy, insult and hate will always exist. What matters is how a society responds to it.

Mulberry’s citizens set an example of how to fight hate in a nonviolent way. They stood against hate and projected an image of openness to the world instead.

Mulberry may be a small town, but it teaches a big lesson, important to the whole world.