On March 20, Florida Pastor Terry Jones burned a copy of the Koran after a mock trial in which he found the book guilty of crimes against humanity. He had threatened to burn hundreds of copies on September 11 last year, and he was dissuaded from doing so only after the event made international headlines. This time he went through with it.
The news about the burning spread quickly through the Islamic world. (It was streamed online and promoted on Facebook.) After prayers in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, a mob encouraged by a radical leader stormed a United Nations compound and killed at least a half dozen people. Violence also erupted in Heart and Kabul. The death toll has reached at least 24, including seven U.N. workers. More than 80 other people have been wounded.
Afghani president Hamid Karzai called on Congress to condemn Pastor Jones, but Jones has said he doesn’t feel responsible for the riots. Many other individuals seem to feel differently. Jones reports that he has received over 300 death threats.
General David Petreaus condemned the burning, as did Mark Sedwill, a NATO civilian representative in Afghanistan. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) suggested that burning of the Koranmight be a form of free speech that should be curtailed during a time of war. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said: “This Terry Jones idiot has blood on his hands.”
I do not want to defend Jones, and there is every reason to condemn what he did, but his act of burning a book is a statement – a form of protest. It’s like burning a flag. The actor knows it will enrage people, and that is why he is doing it. The act may be intended to provoke a negative response, but it does not justify violence. The appropriate response to bad speech is counter-speech. At least this is how Americans understand speech.
A few years ago, I was involved in a diplomatic meeting that included several Iranian Ayatollahs. At one point I was called on to give a Western defense of a series of Danish comics that had depicted the prophet Muhammad and sparked riots across Europe. After explaining that Americans routinely saw their religious figures mocked on television in shows like South Park, and we accepted this as a matter of free speech, one Ayatollah explained to me – in no uncertain terms – that Islam would never accept such things. There could be no insult to Islam or the Prophet.
That is the sore spot between Islam and the West. We tolerate even offensive speech. In recent months, the congressionally-established and federally funded Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery displayed a video depicting ants crawling over a likeness of Jesus on a crucifix. The Catholic League helped get it removed from the government-funded venue, but if it had been in a private setting, it would not have been removed. An overwhelming percentage of American Christians understand and accept that insults like this are a matter of free speech. Many Islamic leaders do not.
When Jones burned the Koran, he put his finger right on that sore spot, and he got a predictable response. So, yes, let’s complain about what he did, but let’s not compare his act – a form of speech – with the violence that it sparked. There is a significant difference between those two acts, and there is an even bigger gulf between the American understanding of free speech and the Middle Eastern understanding of that doctrine. If we are to live together in harmony, we will have to heal the true problem, not complain about the preacher who picks at the scab.
Ron Rychlak | Apr 8, 2011 8:09 AM