Pro- and Anti-Muslim Sentiment in Gainesville

One event in Gainesville will go off as planned this weekend: the Gainesville Interfaith Forum’s Gathering for Peace, Understanding, and Hope at Trinity United Methodist Church. Pastor of Trinity UMC, Dan Johnson, told RD that they had expected as many as 3,000 people, though given ongoing developments he suspects that might change.

Planned as something of a counter-demonstration to the planned-and-now-canceled Qur’an burning “antics” over at Dove Outreach, the event will feature prayer and bread breaking, with bread from “all over the world,” much of it donated by local establishments. Pastor Johnson indicated that the event will include a spectrum of religious traditions from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim to Baha’i and Hare Krishna (nearby Alachua is home to home of the largest Hare Krishna communities in the United States).

In addition to participating in this event, the Gainesville Muslim Community is promoting a series of events that began on September 8. On September 11, the Gainesville Muslim Initiative will sponsor a free meal and a blood drive in the center of town and then an evening program featuring a variety of religious and community leaders. Muslim leaders are asking their followers to ignore what they are calling the “Dove Outreach not-a-church” and its “not-a-pastor,” whether he goes forward with his plan to burn Qur’ans or not. The community-building efforts of the Gainesville Muslim Community continue through the month, and will culminate in a community fast and shared meal on September 27.

Pastor Johnson says he hopes the recent controversy will “have a silver lining with more and more people seeking to better understand each other.” But full-blown understanding might be too much to ask, as people have been steeped in escalating anti-Muslim rhetoric over the past few months.

A local Jacksonville public radio station program featuring interfaith leaders elicited a range of perspectives from callers. Some said they planned to go to Gainesville with fire extinguishers to make a stand as Americans in favor of religious freedom, including a 93-year-old Northeast Florida civil rights icon, who planned to go and make a citizen’s arrest.

But several other callers demonstrated the depth of anti-Muslim hostility. One argued that Islam is inherently violent comparing responses to the planned Qur’an burning in Afghanistan to the responses of American Christians to desecration of their sacred symbols, completely ignoring the distinctly different political contexts.

Another identified himself as a Christian of a distinct stripe by advocating burning phone books that advertise abortion and then said he doesn’t have a Qur’an but if he did he would “feed it page by page to (his) goat who would be impervious to its lies.” He then admitted he’d not read the Qur’an because he “doesn’t read fiction.” Another who insisted he didn’t “hate other religions or cultures” then argued that the “so-called Christians” (referring to the United Methodist minister who was a guest on the show) should “get their heads out of the sand,” and talk to missionaries in the Middle East about what the Muslims “are really doing.” All this from a public radio audience.

With renunciation of Dove Outreach coming from even the most outspoken anti-Muslim public figures (both political and religious) maybe the whole mess will serve to dial back the Islamophobic rhetoric a bit.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that “residents of Gainesville are trying to get the word out that the actions of one tiny church don’t reflect the city. Along the main drag, businesses are putting up signs such as ‘We Support Tolerance’ and ‘Do Not Impose Your Beliefs on Others.’”

For their part, Muslims are doing what too many other Americans seem unable to do: draw a distinction between a small group doing something offensive and all the others—in this case Christians—who disapprove.