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Pyromaniacal pastor still holding a match Add to ...

After putting the entire planet's political-military-media complex on orange alert, a publicity-seeking Florida pastor on the outer fringes of Christian thought has chosen to defuse the propagandist time-bomb he himself set.

Or has he?

Coming weeks into a hostile national argument about Islam's place in America, a debate fuelled by the proposed construction of a mosque near the site of the World Trade Centre in New York, Rev. Terry Jones sure cherry-picked his 15 minutes.

The irreverent pastor's plan to burn 200 copies of the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11 had the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and leaders across the Muslim world pleading with the head of the inaptly named Dove World Outreach Center to call it off.

"This is a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda," President Barack Obama warned in a Thursday morning interview on ABC. "This could increase the recruitment of individuals who'd be willing to blow themselves up in American cities or European cities."

By days end, Rev. Jones had seen the light and listened, as Mr. Obama asked him, to "those better angels." One of them was Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who called the pastor personally to express "his grave concern" about the potentially catastrophic consequences of his Koran-burning stunt. They included retaliation against American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With a local imam by his side, Rev. Jones then announced outside his Gainesville, Fla. church that he would not proceed with his "event." Instead, he boasted that the cleric behind the mosque near Ground Zero had agreed to move his Islamic centre in exchange.

That was news to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who put out a statement denying he had been in contact with either Rev. Jones or Imam Muhammad Musri, the central Florida cleric who had befriended the pyro-promising pastor. Imam Rauf insisted he would not "barter" the location of mosque. Hours later, the Reverend was having second thoughts about his stand down.

No matter how anesthetized we have become to the frenzy of the 24-hour cable channels - where every item is tagged "breaking news" - the drama unleashed by Rev. Jones this week has been riveting.

Still, it's hard not ask: Are we being had?

Just days ago, Rev. Jones posted another of the dozens of anti-Muslim videos he has uploaded to YouTube in recent months. "Islam is of the devil and, well, Obama is not much better," the pastor roared.

So, was his rapprochement with Imam Musri the result of a Road to Damascus moment some time Thursday or just another stunt to get on TV?

After all the damage Rev. Jones caused this week, mobilizing even Interpol, this is not a moot point. A disturbingly tinderbox climate has descended over America in recent weeks. More than a year after Mr. Obama said he considered it "his responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear," American attitudes toward Muslims appear to be deteriorating.

An ABC News-Washington Post Poll out this week showed that 49 per cent of Americans have an unfavourable view of Islam, up from 39 per cent in the months following the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The proportion of those who think mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims has doubled to 31 per cent of Americans.

Throw in the rise of the Tea Party movement, resurgence of right-wing militias, and recent polls showing that anywhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of Americans now believe Mr. Obama himself is a Muslim, and one is naturally alarmed.

"These events give the appearance of growing radicalism. But it is very easy to overestimate how intolerant American society is," countered Keith David Watenpaugh, a professor of modern Islamic studies at the University of California at Davis. "The regression I see is all linked to very conscious choices made by right-wing American politicians."

Prof. Watenpaugh blames the likes of former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and Republican pundit Newt Gingrich and others for seizing on the debate over the mosque near Ground Zero to stir up their base.

Ms. Palin did condemn Rev. Jones' book-burning intentions - after General David Petraeus, a hero to Republicans, called on the pastor to cease and desist. But she updated her Facebook page to add: "The Muslim cleric who is running for parliament in Afghanistan is calling for the murder of American children in response to scorched Korans, which is worse. Where is the media's focus?"

The politics of fear is hardly unique to America. But there seems to be a solid core of Americans who remain susceptible to the ravings of its practitioners.

Then again, Rev. Jones's congregation couldn't fill more than a couple of pews, much less an entire church.

The real story here, particularly for the Muslim world, may just be that the surest path to fame in America follows the outer fringes.

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