This is a joint post by Shamit and Rumbold
Global news media have had one common headline over the past few days – a Christian pastor wanting to burn the Qur’an. World leaders, including the Vatican, have condemned the proposed event in Gainesville Florida, yet violent protests have erupted in parts of the Muslim world.
Pastor Terry Jones is an unpleasant individual. The minister behind the now-suspended Qur’an burning lives in luxury, yet forces his followers to live in accommodation he owns and work long hours for his business unpaid. His own daughter labelled his group a ‘cult’ which had no more than fifty followers until this whole controversy got the oxygen of 24×7 media publicity around the globe.
Book burning is never right. It is not only vulgar, but also invokes memories of totalitarian regimes trying to destroy ideas they do not approve of. Furthermore, it indicates a failure of the burner to combat what is written, leaving them with no option but to try and erase what they could not challenge intellectually. And, in secular societies, such as the United States, a man of god should respect rights of others to practice their religion as they see fit.
This proposed Qur’an burning has been widely condemned by plenty of prominent people; no doubt many of those share the aversion to book burning. But some have condemned the proposed actions of an unknown, leading a handful of people, not because of the hurt it causes to ordinary Muslims worldwide, but the expected violent reactions of a small community of criminals within the Muslim world that would attack and kill innocent people.
Neither the Qur’an burning nor the violent reactions of the small community of Muslims have wider support among Christians or Muslims. In fact, both actions go against the teachings of the religion they profess to defend. Yet the global community is obsessed with the actions of these minorities. But the biggest casualty in all this is the freedom of speech and expression which are integral to a free, democratic and secular society.
Free speech takes many forms, and that includes the right to offend. There is no point in claiming to believe in free speech, unless you also defend the right of people to do things like this (even if at the same time you urge them to stop because it is unnecessarily rude).
The President of the United States, his cabinet members and senior armed forces commanders have all urged the despicable Terry Jones to stop his event and rightly so. The global media, however, chose to highlight phrases within those statements that directly point towards the potential reaction among a small group of hardliners within the Muslim community, who anyway wish to destroy the US and the West. Curtailing freedom of speech due to the fear of what a small group might do is deeply disturbing and goes against the very basic ethos of a democracy – and definitely the ethos of the “land of the free and home of the brave”.
The Qur’an is a book, not a person. Burning it is not the same as burning a person. It is not incitement to violence (and the lack of riots when say, a mother or child is murdered by Al Qaeda betrays a certain hypocrisy), unless you believe in the fallacy that Muslims are inherently violent.
There have been some very sensible reactions to this inherently stupid and hurtful idea of burning a Koran. The one that stands out is the position taken by the Southern California chapter of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) – they plan to counter the burning through education, by handing out thousands of free Qur’ans across America.
Others need to follow their lead and make debate the battleground once again, not book burnings or threats of violence. If we change the way we live and discard our principles the fundamentalists of all colour, creed and religion would win – we must never accept that irrespective of the sacrifices we may have to make. Pluralism and debate make our societies great – and that is what the fundamentalists of all types hate most about us. We must not give them an inch when it comes to curbing pluralism and freedom of speech and expression.
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Filed in: Civil liberties,Muslim,United States