Yesterday, Think Progress reported on Gen. David Petraeus’ comments that the “International Burn a Quran Day” being planned by the right-wing Dove World Church in Florida “could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort” in Afghanistan. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Gen. Petraeus also said that the Quran burning “is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems. Not just here [in Afghanistan], but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community.”
As if to underline Petreaus’ point, “hundreds of Afghans railed against the United States and called for President Barack Obama’s death at a rally” in Kabul earlier today protesting the planned Quran burning.
In an interview with MSNBC, Dove World Church Pastor Terry Jones described his motivation for burning Islam’s sacred text: “We do not want sharia law or sharia courts” in the United States, he said.
Now, obviously the idea that the U.S. is in danger of coming under sharia law, and its citizens subject to sharia courts, is loony. But understand that this loony belief doesn’t come out of nowhere — it’s exactly what conservative elites have been telling their base for years. Whether it’s Newt Gingrich cribbing Andrew McCarthy’s doctored anecdotes about “creeping sharia,” or the Washington Times running endless editorials and op-eds from utterly dishonest people like Frank Gaffney warning of same, or Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney claiming, without any evidence, that Cordoba Initiative leader Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has “terror-related connections,” it’s clear that there’s a well-funded and organized network of conservatives who see political profit in stoking Americans’ fear of Islam. And Americans are responding to that, some of them in extreme fashion, such as the Quran burners.
The question is what responsibility these elites have for their Islam-bashing endangering U.S. troops in the field. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, I think we need to be careful about chilling speech by arguing that this or that “helps our enemies.” I’m also uncomfortable with empowering popular military officers, no matter how beatified by the media, as arbiters of what is and is not appropriate speech. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider the effects of such speech, or more broadly how the tenor of these debates affects America’s influence abroad. We should. And we should also force conservative elites to acknowledge the consequences of their cynical fearmongering.