Before he was the internationally condemned “Burn a Koran Day” pastor, drawing a crush of media to sleepy Gainesville, Florida; Terry Jones was just your average, amateur cult leader.

The 58-year-old former hotel manager, a self-styled “Dr.” who in 2002 was fined by the government of Germany for using the title without qualifications, founded the 800 -1,000-member Christian Community of Cologne with his second wife Sylvia in 1981. The couple was ejected from the church in 2008 amid allegations of radical teachings and tyrannical, even abusive behavior; allegedly forcing congregants to work at charitable “Lisa Jones Houses,” (named after Jones’ deceased first wife); strident demands for “tithes” and claims that he and his wife were appointed by God. (The Cologne church has joined in the international condemnation of Jones’s book-burning plan.)

Jones emerged from the controversial, Gainesville-based Maranatha Campus Ministries movement, for years the target of cult watchers before it was disbanded in 1989. When Terry and Sylvia returned to the U.S. and took over the Maranatha-affiliated Dove World Outreach Center (bringing the Lisa Jones House concept with them, this time as a food pantry,) fresh controversies arose.

The church lost part of its tax-exempt status this year for running a for-profit vintage furniture business using the unpaid labor of church members.

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In March, the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed an IRS complaint after Jones planted a “No Homo Mayor” sign on church property, opposing openly gay mayoral candidate Craig Lowe (Lowe was elected in April.)

Former members, including Jones’ daughter Emma, broke with the church, describing a restrictive atmosphere where contact with non-members was forbidden, total obedience to the Jones’s was required and the finances generated by the furniture business were shielded from the congregation. (The 20-acre campus is currently for sale.)

Jones’s malice isn’t limited to Islam. He has used his “Braveheart” YouTube podcast to rail against gays, evolution, Barack Obama (“only elected president because he’s black,”) and premarital sex. Recently, he and a handful of Dove’s 50 members made a video containing repeated use of the n-word, supposedly to attack reverse racism.

So how did a small time crank, who first put up his “Islam is of the Devil” sign on the grounds of the 20-acre church campus a year ago, and who has since published a book by the same title, and even tried to market T-shirts, finally succeed in capturing the world’s attention?

Timing.

This year, Jones’ obsession with Islam happens to coincide with the November elections.

In that regard, the most telling condemnations of Jones have come not from local, national or international political or religious leaders, or even Gen. David Petraeus; but rather from Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner (who wishes to be Speaker) and media personalities Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

All three criticized the Quran-burning stunt, while equating it to another hot-button election issue: the building of the Park 51 Islamic center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. In fact, the only thing the two have in common is the First Amendment. Beyond that, the backhanded condemnation is rather like drawing a moral equivalence between a black family in the 1950s moving onto an all-white block and the Klan burning a cross on their lawn.

But the juxtaposition is a potent dog whistle to conservative, economically anxious white voters, who for more than a year have been fed a steady diet of boogeymen: from ACORN, to supposedly marauding, head-chopping Mexican immigrants; to the NAACP, to a pair of New Black Panthers, to the perfectly guileless Shirley Sherrod. (Ironically, the organized civil rights community has been largely silent on the rise anti-Muslim hysteria, even though one-third of U.S. Muslims are African-American.)

The Republican Party didn’t create Terry Jones. But the sudden outburst of Islamophobia, nearly a decade after 9/11, comes a time when nearly half of Republicans believe the Christian president of the United States is a secret Muslim; and when some of the most virulent opponents of the Park 51 project are peddling the fiction that Muslims are somehow seeking to impose Sharia law on the U.S., and equating all Muslims with Nazis.

The strategy of demonizing ethnic and religious minorities to scare white voters to the polls might pay dividends for Republicans in November. But it poses very real risks for Muslim-Americans, who have seen very real increases in attacks on their places of worship, and in some cases, on their persons.

And creeping Islamophobia, taken to absurd extremes by an absurd Florida “pastor,” now threatens to endanger U.S. troops serving in Muslim countries, making them, and all of us, less safe.