Why should the commander of America's forces in Afghanistan care about a paranoid pastor of a church with 50 members in Florida? Welcome to the Internet age.
The problem began when pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville announced plans to burn copies of the Quran on Sept. 11 to memorialize al-Qaida's 2001 terror attacks. [Jones canceled the event Thursday.] Burning the Muslim holy book was "neither an act of love nor of hate," he insisted, but a warning against what he called the threats posed by Islam.
Gen. David Petraeus thought that was a terrible idea. "It could endanger troops," the U.S. commander in Afghanistan said in a statement issued Monday, "and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan."
Nobody knows better than Petraeus after his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan that America's success in the Muslim world depends on our building alliances with Muslim leaders and local populations. It does not help our confidence-building efforts to have hundreds of angry Muslims burning our flag and shouting "Death to America" outside our embassy in Kabul out of anger over Pastor Jones' announced Quran burning.
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Our best strategy as sane Americans would be to ignore Jones, but this is the Internet age, a time when any street-corner prophet with a laptop can grab a global audience, especially if they do something shocking enough. Pastor Jones shocks with a website that offers one-stop shopping for Islamophobes - including his book, "Islam Is of the Devil," with matching coffee cup and T-shirt.
Add Pastor Jones to a recent rash of episodes that fail to show Americans at our courageous, egalitarian and levelheaded best. There was the local Manhattan zoning issue over an Islamic community center that become an international incident. There was the construction of a suburban Nashville mosque that was delayed by protests and a mysterious fire.
There was Republican Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert's declaration on CNN that "the evidence abounds" of a "terror baby" threat by immigrants having babies who would grow up to be terrorists.
And among other ballot questions in Oklahoma this November, voters will be asked to prohibit the state's courts from using Islamic "Sharia law" when deciding cases.
There's no question that today's irrational fears and suspicions often are rooted in real differences. But "Know your enemy," as in the military saying derived from 6th century B.C. strategist Sun Tzu's book "The Art of War." Petraeus knows what Jones apparently does not: Our enemy is terrorism, not Islam.
By threatening to set their holy book on fire, Jones makes the world's Muslims the enemy - including those who serve either in or with the U.S. military - which only backs up the propaganda that Osama bin Laden and his cronies have been preaching to the world.
We Americans want moderate Muslims to speak up and denounce Islamic extremism. We need to do the same with our own anti-Islamic extremists.
Our country stands proudly as a model of free expression, even if some of our voices are infected with irrational fears. We Americans need to protect and preserve free speech. But we also need to be wise enough to make war with extremists, not with Islam, and to speak that truth to our fellow Americans who have trouble telling the difference.
Contact Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, at email@example.com.