Until last week, the university city of Gainesville, Florida, wasn't much talked about outside its home state. Students of US history may recall the Gainesville Eight, a group of anti-Vietnam war protesters who were acquitted on charges of breaking up the Republican convention in 1972; these days the city (population 125,000) has its first gay mayor, suggesting that it doesn't easily fit stereotypes about the American South.
On the other hand, Gainesville does have a combined Pentecostal church and second-hand furniture business – it sells donated furniture online – run by Terry and Sylvia Jones. Pastor Jones, as he styles himself, has become infamous since he announced, then called off, a stunt called "International Burn A Koran Day". Timed to coincide with yesterday's ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the plan prompted fury around the world.
Angry Muslims burned American flags while politicians, including Hillary Clinton and President Obama, denounced the proposed book-burning as an outrage. On Friday, private security forces opened fire on demonstrators who tried to storm a Nato base in northern Afghanistan.
Heinrich Heine believed that burning books leads to burning people but that isn't always so; Jones is clearly a ghastly man but I don't think he intended anything other than a headline-grabbing provocation. Since his ignominious ejection from running a church in Germany – he and his wife were accused of creating a "climate of fear and control" among the congregation in Cologne – he's staged a series of stunts at the misleadingly-named Dove World Outreach Centre.
When Craig Lowe announced he was running for office, Jones's church put up a sign declaring "No Homo Mayor", a declaration that didn't stop local people voting for him. Jones does have some friends, but they're over in Topeka, Kansas, where the Westboro Baptist Church has equally unpleasant ideas. The Topeka fundamentalists may not be as exercised about Islam as their Gainesville brethren but they're just as homophobic; their pet project is picketing the funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan because of their peculiar notion that deaths in action are God's way of punishing the US for "tolerating" homosexuality.
Earlier this year, a few of these charming people held a demonstration with Jones's outfit. The visitors' signs proclaimed"God hates Israel" while the home team shirts read "Islam is of the Devil". The Gainesville Sun said they were outnumbered by a counter-protest led by Mayor Lowe, whose placards declared "Intolerance is a disease. Get well soon".
Last week, as Jones kept changing his mind about his book-burning stunt – he claimed he'd been misled about a plan to move the site of an Islamic cultural centre further from Ground Zero – his friends in Kansas turned on the "sissy brats of doomed America" who were trying to talk him out of the Koran-burning and threatened to do it themselves. In the end, yesterday passed off without reports of any books being ignited, and the Christian fundamentalists who caused all the trouble ended up looking ridiculous.
But so too did the Muslim clerics who over-reacted with claims that the book-burning would be "tantamount to war". Those of us who don't share the smouldering resentments of religious extremists can only conclude, with a weariness born of years of having our patience tested, that one side is as irrational as the other.