The counter-protestors were a motley bunch. A father with a son deployed to Afghanistan; some white American teens upset at the burning of the Qur’an nearby; and two twenty-something girls (who think it’s “just terrible” to burn an American flag which has also been set aflame) stood uneasily on one side of the street, soliciting honks and waves from passersby. Across the street, the drivers mostly ignored the small group of Muslims—two women in hijab, two men, and some teen boys from Southeast Asia—as they passed out literature depicting Islam as a gentle religion and listened to the Qur’an over a portable radio. The two groups shared a common enemy but couldn’t seem to forge a useful alliance. Such is the awkward bedfellows that Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, loves to make.
When Terry Jones, pastor of Dove World Christian Outreach in Gainesville, Florida, reneged on his promise to burn a Qur’an on September 11, 2010—the last day of Ramadan and the ninth anniversary of the attacks of radical Muslims on American soil—Westboro Baptist Church was quick to pick up the torch. Though members of the two churches had stood side by side in April when members of Westboro traveled to Gainesville to picket area churches and the University of Florida Hillel, and though both view Islam as a false religion, Jones had noted that Dove’s members did not agree with all of Westboro’s tactics.
More recently Shirley Phelps-Roper, speaking for Westboro Baptist Church, called Jones “an apologist,” and predicted that the media, the public, and politicians would “browbeat him and he’ll back down at the last minute.” In preparation for Jones’ capitulation, Westboro Baptist Church announced its own plans to burn the holy book (for the second time, having performed the ritual in 2008) and the American flag, offending Muslims and Americans at home and abroad and reorganizing the counter-protest landscape.
After the burning, Shirley Phelps-Roper shared in an interview that half of the responses the church received had praised it for its bold action of burning the Qur’an, encouraging church members not to cave to political correctness and agreeing with the church’s sentiment that Islam is a false religion. But boosters of Qur’an burning are unlikely to be fans of U.S. flag burning—as evidenced by the counter-protestor who called the burning of the Qur’an a religious right but the burning of the flag an act of treason. And that’s where the members of Westboro Baptist Church, generally dismissed as irrelevant to the public discussion of religion, might have a useful critique to offer.
The American flag and the Qur’an are both idols, argues the church. Westboro member Abi Phelps argued that the problem with the Qur’an isn’t just that it contains a false religion but that the book itself, as a material thing, is worshipped. And for the Westboro Baptist Church—which identifies as a Primitive Baptist church even as other Primitive Baptists disavow it—anything that looks like idolatry should be demolished. “Anyone should destroy anything that stands between them and salvation,” explained Abi Phelps, and that includes the Qur’an, Catholic statuary, Orthodox icons, crosses, and those fish bumper stickers that evangelical Christians love. That’s also why the church includes no images of Jesus (who, as God, should never be depicted as a “graven image”) in its sanctuary or literature. But it’s also why church members desecrate the American flag—the “whore Old Glory,” the greatest “American Idol”—in other pickets. Saturday’s event wasn’t merely anti-Islam theatrics or a provocative gesture aimed at heating up discussion of the church’s upcoming Supreme Court case on the picketing of military funerals; for church members, it was an idol-smashing party. As America is in the throes of what appears to be an anti-Islamic fever, it is WBC’s critique of the flag as an idol that angers the public most-and what divides the church’s counter-protestors.
If these counter-protestors are a bit confused about how to respond, that’s understandable. While President Obama, General Petraeus, and others (including the father of the soldier who stood by Westboro Baptist Church as part of the counter-protest) have argued that acts such as the burning of the Qur’an, while legal, provoke anti-American sentiment and endanger American troops, Westboro’s Tim Phelps argues that it’s the invasion of Muslim nations and the killing of countless civilians that has inspired violence by Muslims. The media, he says, ignores these civilian deaths, “as if their lives did not matter at all,” instead calling down wrath on religious believers exercising their rights to free speech.
The blood of American soldiers won’t be on Westboro Baptist Church, argues the church press release announcing the event, but on US political and military leadership:
The blasphemous talking heads (politicians, talk show hosts, false prophets, arrogant Pentagon perverts) of this nation of proud sinners have put the bullseye of God on the backs of these soldiers. Burning the Qur’an could not possibly imperil your soldiers any more than you already have.
And here, Westboro Baptist Church is quite correct. The invasion of Iraq on false grounds, the failure of promised democracy to launch in Afghanistan, the abuses at Abu Ghraib, indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay, the collateral damage of drone attacks in Pakistan, and the untold civilian deaths (with estimates heading into the hundreds of thousands) associated with US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the events that could doom relations between the Muslim world and America.
Symbolic acts do matter, but the ones performed by sanctioned US representatives—the unnamed soldier who used the Qur’an for target practice or Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin’s 2003 comment that the Christian God is “real” while his Muslim opponent’s deity was merely an “idol”—are far more meaningful.
To be sure, Westboro Baptist Church is not pacifist or anti-war, and members think that the dead civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan (like the dead soldiers, like most people) are sinners damned to hell by a hyper-Calvinist God who uses warfare both to kill individuals and to wreck nations. And they link all that destruction to the United States’ alleged tolerance for homosexuality and general sin, sounding a note similar to the one Chuck Colson, Anne Morse, and D’Nesh D’Souza sounded post-9/11, warning that it was America’s exportation of smut culture that made us hated by fundamentalist Muslims (though, to be fair, Colson and D’Souza blamed offended Muslims for the attacks while WBC blamed an offended God).
Still, the criticism that our government’s war-making—and the death, destruction, degradation, and exploitation that go with it—makes us disliked abroad, and that patriotism has been, across US history, exploited to draw critical attention away from these factors… Well, it’s hard to stand in opposition to that.