The clarifying chaos of the Quran-burning saga.

Terry Jones

So let me get this straight: A Florida minister who has fewer than 50 followers, doesn’t answer to any Christian organization, and doesn’t even know the other pastors in his town set off panic and violence around the world by holding hostage a few copies of the Quran. He withstood pleas from the National Association of Evangelicals, the World Evangelical Alliance, the U.S. secretary of state, and the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Then, in negotiations with an imam from Orlando, he agreed to surrender his hostages in exchange for what he thought was a deal to relocate a Manhattan mosque from its planned site near Ground Zero. But the imam in Manhattan said he had made no such deal and hadn’t even talked to the imam from Orlando. So now the minister says he was double-crossed and might burn his hostages after all.

Someday, perhaps after a few more Qurans, American flags, effigies, cars, and embassies have been torched, all of this will be sorted out. But for now, let’s be clear about one thing this crazy episode has proved: Nobody in it controls anybody else.

That’s more than a punch line. It’s a refudiation of the mentality that led us into this mess. Remember how the frenzy over the Manhattan community center started? Conspiracy theorists concocted a global Muslim plot to erect a “victory mosque” at Ground Zero. The Weekly Standard spun a diabolical web linking the imam behind the project to Hamas, the Gaza flotilla, Pakistani jihadists, and “the Iranian clerical dictatorship.” Newt Gingrich depicted the project as part of an insidious scheme to bring the United States under the control of Islamic law.

The minister in Florida, Terry Jones, seized on the controversy to peddle his theory that “Islam is of the devil.” But which Islam? Jones never bothered to read the book he was preparing to burn, which is why he never understood that Islam, like Christianity, is a religion of multiple interpretations, encompassing believers who often disagree with one another. You might recall, for instance, the Iran-Iraq War. So it must have come as quite a shock to Jones when the Manhattan imam disagreed with the Orlando imam about relocating the Ground Zero mosque (which wasn’t a mosque and wasn’t at Ground Zero—but let’s not get bogged down in details) and said they had never even talked about it. Aren’t all these imams connected on Glenn Beck’s chalkboard? Don’t they confer all the time? Apparently not.

Meanwhile, the Gingriches and Joneses of the Muslim world have cooked up their own theories. They think the Quran-burning stunt is an American plot and that President Obama is behind it. In the past 48 hours, they’ve marched against the United States, incinerated American flags, and threatened jihad. Thousands of Afghans gathered in their capital and five provinces. Some chanted “Death to the Christians.” Others threw rocks at a NATO base. One man was killed. A British Islamist is urging Muslims everywhere to burn the stars and stripes.

Sorry, but the world doesn’t work this way anymore. Christians don’t control Christians, Americans don’t control Americans, Afghans don’t control Afghans, and Muslims don’t control Muslims. The curse of our age isn’t a global empire of infidels or Islamists. It’s the collapse of empires and the rise of rogues. In this world, an imam in Manhattan who preaches reconciliation isn’t your enemy. He’s your friend.

The chaos of the last 24 hours—in fact, of the last two weeks—has trashed all the conspiracy theories. The Manhattan imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, went on CNN and condemned Hamas terrorism. Jones went on MSNBC and said he wouldn’t cancel his Quran-burning party even if his political hero, George W. Bush, asked him to. Sarah Palin denounced Jones’ plan. Gingrich scrapped a promised video address to a 9/11 rally against the Manhattan community center. Jones dropped out of sight and didn’t even return calls from fellow Islam-basher Rev. Franklin Graham. Then Jones cut a deal with an agent of the religion of the devil, only to discover that the agents of the devil didn’t speak for one another.

I’ve been to churches like Jones’ before. They may subscribe nominally to a denomination, but they’re fiercely independent. The minister runs the church and interprets the Bible in his own peculiar manner, all the while insisting that he’s just reading it the way God wrote it. How hard is it to grasp that mosques and imams vary in pretty much the same way? Some preach hate. Some preach love. Some preach bogus literalism. Some think the Manhattan community center should be moved.

The bargain Jones thought he had struck—canceling the Quran burning in exchange for moving the community center—has been brewing as a moral-equivalence fantasy all week. Sarah Palin suggested it yesterday: “People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation—much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.” This morning, Gingrich chimed in, telling ABC’s Good Morning America that “it’s wrong to burn the Quran, and it’s wrong to build the mosque at Ground Zero, and both should be stopped.” This is a silly and insulting proposition. If I offered to cancel my Torah burning in exchange for you relocating your synagogue, you’d recognize my offer right away as extortion.

Slate V: Obama addresses Quran controversy in his press conference

Palin, Gingrich, and their chorus of right-wing commentators have had four months to explain, without resort to group blame or religious discrimination, why no Muslim house of worship should be built near Ground Zero. They have yet to answer the question. That’s why they keep talking about “sensitivity” and “provocation”—words that cloak the intellectual crudity behind the sentiment.

Eventually, it will dawn on them that the Muslims who want to swim, eat, and worship at a community center in Lower Manhattan really are different from the Muslims who flew planes into the World Trade Center. And maybe they’ll figure out that the imam in Manhattan disagrees not just with the imam in Orlando, but with imams in Gaza and Pakistan, too. The manifest chaos of Christianity is an easy starting point for this kind of reflection. Jones is a fool and a hater, but he’s his own man.

So is Fred Phelps. His Westboro Baptist Church, headquartered at godhatesfags.com, is now pledging to pick up where Jones left off, burning not just the Quran but the American flag [PDF] on 9/11. There will always be some angry crackpot ready to defile your flag, burn your scripture, or hijack your airliner. These crackpots don’t speak for your religion or mine. They speak for themselves.

Yesterday in Iowa, Gingrich said the Quran-burning episode just shows that the United States “has some people who are outrageous, as every country does, and they don’t represent the country.” A wonderful lesson. If only it were true of Islam. Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter. William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: