Free speech and burning Korans

The Rev. Terry Jones, an obscure Florida pastor with 50-odd followers and a cigarette lighter, has made himself into a world figure by burning a Koran.  He was denounced by President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and General David Petreaus, not to mention Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai.  They blame him for Muslim riots from Pakistan to Dearborn, Mich., and they say he puts American lives at risk.

Rev. Terry Jones

Jones is a malicious fool, and the image of burning books is offensive to anybody who believes in freedom and reason.  Book burning conjures up images of Nazi Germany, with its bonfires of “un-German” books, or the former Roman Catholic Inquisition, which burned books (including Korans) as well as people.

But here’s the thing.  Jones has not killed anyone.  He has not threatened to kill anyone.  He has merely exercised his Constitutional right of free speech, the same Constitution that protects American Muslims against religious persecution, in an unwise way.  There is no “Muslim rage” exception to the First Amendment.

If some Christian or Jewish Americans attacked some random Muslims because of their rage over the 9/11 attacks, their rage would not be an excuse for their crime.  No matter how angry you get, you are still legally and morally responsible for your own actions.  In the same way Muslims who attack random Americans or Christians are morally responsible for their actions.  Many of us Americans are angered at the burning of the American flag, but we refrain from going on murderous rampages.

If the Rev. Terry Jones poked a bear with a stick or threw a stone into a wasps’ nest, he would be responsible for what happened next.  Bears and wasps are not morally responsible for their actions. Human beings are.  They have a choice as to how to react.  The best way to deal with people like him would be to ignore him – to deprive him of the attention he craves.

But as long as we’re talking about doing things that enrage people, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus between them are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Muslim noncombatants, as a predictable byproduct of war operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  In my opinion, their actions have done more to enrage Muslims than all the fundamentalist Protestant Christian preachers in the world put together.

Think about it.  What would be more likely to send you into a rage – (1) the reduction of your home town or city to rubble by a foreign occupying army, (2) the killing of loved ones by a misguided missile or by a nervous trooper at a roadblock, (3) the disappearance of somebody you know into a secret prison for no known reason, or (4) a YouTube video of the desecration of a sacred symbol of your religion by somebody on the other side of the world?

I think that overall, we Americans can take pride in sticking to our basic principle of freedom of religion.  We have compromised many Constitutional rights over the past 10 years, but this is one we have upheld.

For every Terry Jones, Juan Williams, Sam Harris or Newt Gingrich, there are dozens of non-Muslim Americans with good will toward their Muslim fellow citizens.  I don’t deny that there are prejudiced people, such as the opponents of Cordoba House (misnamed the Ground Zero mosque) or the pilot who refused to take off with two passengers in the traditional dress of Muslim countries.  But I think that if I were a Muslim, I would much rather live in the United States than in India or China, or even than Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.

Gujarat anti-Muslim riot

For example, India has been wracked by Hindu-Muslim riots repeatedly since winning independence in 1948.  A report by Bloomberg News described one riot in 2002 in Gujarat province in which, according to a citizens tribunal, Hindu mobs surrounded Muslim neighborhoods, destroyed houses with homemade bombs, raped and killed women and butchered men.  More than 1,000 people were killed.  The governor of the province, Narendra Modi, reportedly ordered the police to let the killing run its course; he is still in office.

Compared to this, or to the persecution of the native Muslim Uighur population of China’s western Xinjiang province, or the abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, or, for that matter, the effects of U.S. military operations in Muslim countries, the antics of Terry Jones fade into insignificance.  This whole controversy is a red herring that draws attention away from what really matters.

Click on Is limitless freedom of expression possible? for an article by Prof. Richard Falk of Princeton and the University of California at Santa Barbara.  He argued that the cases of Terry Jones’ Koran burnings, the caricatures of Mohammad by Danish cartoonists and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses represent a gray area where freedom of speech is concerned.  I disagree, and this post is my rebuttal.

Click on Free Speech for Terry Jones! for a sensible discussion by Michael C. Moynihan in Reason magazine.

Click on How Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses has shaped our society for a report by Andrew Anthony of the London Observer on how fear of Muslim rage has compromised the right to freedom of expression.

Click on Democracy: Who’s She When She’s at Home for an article about Hindu-Muslim violence by the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy.

Click on Narendra Modi as Man Muslims Love to Hate for Abhay Singh’s Bloomberg News article about one of India’s leading anti-Muslim politicians.

In this post, I criticize individuals and governments, but I do not make a blanket condemnation of Muslims, Hindus or fundamentalist Protestant Christians.  Many Muslims, Hindus and fundamentalist Protestants oppose religious persecution.  Each faith includes disparate people whose interpret their faith in many different ways.

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