The impressively moustachioed, yet seemingly intellectually challenged pastor Terry Jones has been threatening to burn a Qur’an since last year. Finally another pastor friend of his, Wayne Sapp, has carried out the threat with Jones standing by no doubt grinning and playing with himself as the kerosene soaked pages were reduced to ashes. Jones had a fair idea of what the result of this action would be, he had already backed down from burning a Qur’an himself after being advised that it could put American lives at risk in Afghanistan and other nations with large Islamic populations. So why he thought another pastor carrying out the same act in his presence wouldn’t have the same affect is astonishingly naive or disgustingly negligent and certainly incredibly cowardly. Either way the man was complicit in an event which he knew could, and did result in the deaths of innocent people half way across the world.
As hateful a figure as Pastor Jones and Sapp cut, are they the real villains of this piece? Their knowledge of the possible outcome of their actions makes them incredibly reckless and surely lays some responsibility at their feet, however we in the West live in a world of free speech and even freedom of actions, to a point. These freedoms have been won over centuries of struggle, both physical and verbal so should we be restricting our words and deeds to appease individuals in countries which don’t share our view of freedom?
Arguably the greatest intellectual and political leap forward occurred in Great Britain at the time of The Enlightenment. As a nation we shunned the shackles of religion and acquired a new found freedom to question, mock, ridicule and insult beliefs that previously had been deemed, well, sacred. This freedom resulted in a change of attitude, a freedom of expression and a freedom for the individual to choose their own beliefs and so their own path. No longer were people persecuted for their beliefs or their lack of. The result was a great advances for the political, philosophical and scientific landscape and so for society as a whole. Without these freedoms we would not have progressed as a nation at the speed we did. This process has been stilted by some of the more recent laws affecting freedom of speech in the UK but that is a discussion for another time, essentially the Great British public and those in many other Western nations are blessed with more freedom in speech and deed than others in the world. So, when the people of a newly formed or semi-formed democracy believe that an insult or action in a far off land which neither physically hurt nor inconvenienced anyone is an excuse to start killing innocent people it should set off alarm bells both for us in the West but also within the host country. Democracy and freedom of speech cannot exist without each other and neither can exist if insulting someone’s beliefs is a crime.
There have been two very similar, yet equally different cases to this in recent years. Firstly the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book the Satanic Verses caused such a furore amongst staunch Islamists that the Ayatollah Khomeini saw fit to issue a fatwa against the author and those involved in publishing the book. Whilst Rushdie himself went into hiding and seems to have come out of the whole affair with no lasting damage to his health or career, others weren’t so lucky. A Japanese scholar and Muslim convert Hitoshi Igarashi who translated the book into Japanese was stabbed to death in 1991 for his minor role in the books life. The Italian translator survived a similar attack the same year and the Norwegian publisher of the book barely escaped an assassination attempt a couple of years later. Not content with individuals the fatwa has also been blamed for the Sivas massacre in Turkey in 1993 where a group of radical Islamists, angered by the presence of the Turkish translator of the book, Aziz Nesin, attacked a gathering at a cultural festival in Sivas. The result was 37 people dead due to a book published five years previous. A book which was seen to offend a god that, if you believed in him was surely far stronger and more important than the idle mockery of mere mortals. You’d be hard pushed to find a liberally minded Westerner who would question the motives of Rushdie when writing the book. Was he deliberately taunting the Muslim world or was he merely an artist who was being subjected to threats of death for a legitimate work of literature? Either way it was clear to most that the treatment he and those around him endured was outrageous and disproportionate to the words he had written.
The next example would be the one that bridges the Rushdie/Jones controversy gap in many people’s minds. The cartoons of Mohammed printed in a Danish newspaper in 2005 caused a worldwide outcry as well as protests and death threats issued to those who had published, or who might dare to reprint them. The reason this straddles the two issues is because the cartoons were printed with a clear idea of the controversy they would provoke. The Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten, which printed them, did so deliberately to invoke a debate on the subject of self censorship in supposedly free countries due to the fear of offending people with religious beliefs. The newspaper may have been naive or trying too hard to be provocative but they certainly weren’t being racist or Islamophobic as some claimed. That said there are clearly more intelligent and less inflammatory ways to provoke such a debate.
Now we come to the current issue of Pastors Jones and Sapp. Unlike Rushdie they knew they would be stirring up controversy and possible violence when they burnt a Qur’an and unlike Jyllands-Posten they weren’t trying to start any debate on the subject of Islam. Instead they held a very one-sided mock trial and then condemned the religious amalgam of tree pulp and ink to death for “crimes”, which are as yet unspecified by the media. Apparently, less than 30 people witnessed the event yet thanks to media reports which condemned Jones and Sapp for their actions and the potential backlash, at the same time as they helped spread news of the event to parts of the world where the backlashers would be readying their weapons. So, there are clear differences between the actions of a couple of bigoted and ignorant pastors, a controversy stirring newspaper and a much celebrated writer but each of their actions has resulted in violent repercussions from the less moderate quarters of the Islamic world. Words and deeds which caused no physical harm to an individual or group have been responded to with protests, death threats and in two of the cases the murder of innocent and unconnected individuals.
If Pastors Jones and Sapp are to be held accountable for their actions then we also need to hold the media responsible for reporting their behaviour as they clearly understood the potential offense such reports would cause. In fact they stated as much in their reports of the events that had previously only been witnessed by less than 30 people. These questions can only be answered by the US judicial system which I strongly suspect will have nothing much to say on the matter. The bigger question is should we in the West be willing to adapt our laws on freedom of speech and action (as we already have) or to self censor to accommodate the disproportionate reaction of a minority of religious fanatics in countries with radically different social values to us?
We have formed a legal and political system over many generations that awards us greater personal freedoms than most and we should be willing to defend it from threats within and without. Jones' and Sapp's actions are indefensible in the sense that they were deliberately inflammatory and derive from an equally bigoted and close-minded standpoint as those who murdered the UN Staff. They are however defensible in the sense that they are not illegal in the country they occurred and they didn’t directly cause harm to any of the individuals who claim offense. They are also not in any way on a par with the actions of those people who murdered the UN staff in Afghanistan. What we should not lose sight of is the fact that we live in a society where it is not illegal to burn a religious book or to write words that might offend someone’s religious beliefs and this is not only a good thing but it has helped shape the legal and political landscape we all take advantage of. If we wish to keep these freedoms then we should be very wary of compromising them even if it means defending actions we might find distasteful in order to protect the greater liberty we all enjoy.