Free speech: the burning issue

Pastor Terry Jones’s wish to burn the Koran may have been nutty but such wishes - and actions - are protected by the US constitution

By Geoffrey Alderman, September 21, 2010

Prior to the recent anniversary of the Islamist attacks on the World Trade Centre and other American targets, an obscure American pastor threatened to publicly burn copies of the Koran on the lawn of his church in Gainesville, Florida.

The publicity given to this (subsequently withdrawn) threat sparked worldwide condemnation. Other Christian communities in the neighbourhood were joined by leaders of Muslim and Jewish congregations in berating pastor Terry Jones and his self-declared "International Burn a Koran Day."

As news of Mr Jones's intention spread, predictable demonstrations erupted in Afghanistan and other Islamic states. Governments of such forward-looking, liberal and oh-so-enlightened countries as Indonesia and Pakistan joined in the ruckus, as US attorney-general Eric Holder described the proposed Koran-burning as "idiotic and dangerous".

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a meal marking the breaking of the Ramadan fast, castigated the proposal as a "disrespectful, disgraceful act," but confessed how heartened she had been by the "unequivocal condemnation" of it that had issued forth from "religious leaders of all faiths, from evangelical Christians to Jewish rabbis as well as secular US leaders and opinion-makers."

Amid all this outrage, about two hours before Rosh Hashanah, I was telephoned by an acquaintance and asked if I would sign a letter of protest against what Pastor Jones was threatening to do. I refused. Here's why.

Bad taste, like beauty, is entirely in the eye of the beholder

In the first place, I believe in the right to give offence, which is but a sub-category of the right to freedom of expression. I draw the line at incitement to violence. If Pastor Jones had threatened to accompany his Koran-burning with a call to kill Muslims, I would have condemned it without reservation.

But no such threat was uttered. Hillary Clinton referred in her Ramadan speech to the famous letter that George Washington penned to Moses Seixas, warden of the Touro synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, declaring that the USA would give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." What she did not refer to was the First Amendment to the US constitution, adopted the following year, guaranteeing (inter alia) freedom of speech.

In the view of constitutional experts, this guarantee protects Pastor Jones's right to say what he likes about Islam and to burn the Koran in public if he wishes. It gives precisely the same right to Muslims to burn the Christian and/or Hebrew Bibles and to you or me (if we feel so inclined) to burn the Book of Mormon.

But the argument triggered by Pastor Jones and his antics was not fundamentally about freedom of speech, was it? Fundamentally, it was about how we in the west, inheritors of what is termed "the Judeo-Christian tradition", confront Islam.

General Petraeus, the US commander in Afghanistan, had the effrontery to warn that burning the Koran in Florida would inflame public opinion in Afghanistan and incite violence - as if the US presence in the Middle East, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the "collateral" killing of Afghan civilians hasn't already inflamed public opinion and incited violence.

As for the demonstrations organised by the Taliban, I seem to recall that it was a Taliban regime that gloried in its blowing-up of the 6th-century Bamyan Bhuddas in March 2001. The words, pot, kettle and black spring instantly to mind.

The Obama White House has a certain delusional view of radical Islam. This view is grounded in a philosophy of appeasement, and in a belief that radical Islam can be appeased. That was why Mrs Clinton attended the Ramadan dinner. Did she attend a meal held to mark the end of Yom Kippur? Has she ever expressed the wish to attend the meal that marks the end of the Greek Orthodox Lent (which is a time of qualified fasting)? If the answer to either of these questions is in the negative, why did she attend the Ramadan dinner?

The acquaintance who phoned me erev Rosh Hashanah blustered that, irrespective of these arguments, the public burning of the Koran was surely in "the worst possible taste".

I'll tell you what I told her. Bad taste, like beauty, is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

If some Christian nutter in Florida (who, it turns out, did not even have the courage of his own convictions) wants to burn the Koran, good luck to him. But the Muslim world is incredibly immature, and needs to grow up. That is what we should be focusing on.

Last updated: 11:41am, September 21 2010