The controversy over the plans of Pastor Terry Jones to burn a copy of The Qur’an this coming Saturday raises a number of points of interest for me, points that derive from contrasting values that I hold. This plan challenges the idea of freedom, but also the extent of commitment to faith.
As a writer and teacher, I value books in general and abhor burning them. I will not say that all books are sacred–if everything in a category is sacred, then effectively, nothing is–but the idea of books certainly is. The Qur’an is clearly an important and complex text. It comes out of the same Abrahamic tradition as the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. I do not accept it as binding on my life, any more than the Bible, but I respect those who do, and I recognize the cultural value that it has. Let’s remember that for many generations, Islamic societies led the world in scientific and economic development, and The Qur’an was a unifying and propulsive force in that.
At the same time, in America, we cannot be compelled to respect anyone’s sacred book. According to today’s edition of the NPR news program Here and Now (9 September 2010), protesters in Pakistan are demanding that Pastor Jones be stopped from burning a copy of The Qur’an. What they don’t understand is that this is impossible. Yes, he does not have a permit to burn, so he may be fined, but that’s it. The charge would be the same if he burned trash. In this country, freedom of expression is recognized as a fundamental right. We can burn flags, photograph crosses in urine, write dirty books, and practice infidel religions. If that right is supressed, we lose our humanity.
I am concerned at the way that protesters are so willing to defend one book, but not others. Recall the fatwa calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie because of his book, The Satanic Verses, and the death threats against Danish cartoonists who drew pictures of Muhammed. Is a novel or a cartoon the equivalent of The Qur’an? I argue that it is. Each is an expression of ideas and art. An act of violence against one idea threatens all. There is a hypocrisy in those who insist that what they value must be respected, while the values of others are taken to be of no consequence.
What is the answer to all of this? I quote Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” If Pastor Jones dislikes The Qur’an, I ask him to write his own book that explains why. If Muslims oppose burning the book or are angered by someone else’s expression, they may preach and write in an effort to convince the rest of us to see things their way. Ideas must be defended on their own terms: in speech, in writing, in drawing, and in other forms of expression. Argumentum ad Baculum in either case proves nothing beyond demonstrating which side has the greater force, and as history shows us, empires built on force inevitably fall. By contrast, the great ideas make who we are, and their influence stays in us.