Sam Harris has a brand new blog, and already has managed to lard it with roughly what you’d expect: tendentiousness, insistence that religious is wrong because it won’t change (and that religions which do change are illegitimate for doing so), and the usual pro-repression politics.
Referring to Florida’s Pastor Jones, who finally burnt a Quran after spending the last year threatening to do so, and who inspired (as predicted) violence in Afghanistan as a result, Harris asks Do We Have the Right to Burn the Koran?. To which the simple answer is: Sure, but that doesn’t mean anyone should do so.
And now the longer, more complicated answer:
Harris feels the need to say much more in defense of Quran-burning, mostly quoting his earlier defense of repressive Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whose eugenic opposition to immigration from Muslim countries and illiberal desire to ban Qurans and forbid the establishment of Islamic schools is so far out of the acceptable mainstream of politics that Glenn Beck called Wilders a fascist. And Beck knows from fascists!
The problem is that Harris’ question is wrong. We have a right to burn a flag, Illinois Nazis (“I hate Illinois Nazis!“) have a right to march through Skokie, and the KKK has a right to burn crosses (with some exceptions). But none of those are good ideas. I want groups like the ACLU to stand up for the legal right to do those things, because I believe that the best remedy for bad speech is more speech. Which is why it’s necessary that people decry Pastor Jones’s inflammatory actions, and why I find it so strange to see atheists, skeptics, and others trying to defend Jones, or simply focusing on the question of whether he was legally entitled to burn copy of a book he owned.
It’d be one thing if the defenses were of the form offered for the Phelps clan during its recent Supreme Court case – reluctant “everyone deserves a defense,” “the first amendment protects all speech” sorts of arguments. And while I’m a First Amendment maximalist and wouldn’t want to see this argument made it court, I think a plausible case could be made that Jones’s actions crossed a line that the Phelps’s never did. Jones seemed intent on inspiring violence and in intimidating Muslims in a way that could well fall into the murky “fighting words” exception to the First Amendment, or the analysis laid out in Virginia v. Black, where a Virginia law against cross burning was challenged by KKK members convicted of violating the law. The court ruled that the state law, which outlawed “burning of a cross” in a public place or on someone else’s private property, when done “with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons.” The Court held that, given the long history of cross burning, the act was “a particularly virulent form of intimidation,” and it was acceptable to outlaw the act when done with the intent of intimidation. The law was wrong to the extent it held that burning a cross was inherently an act of intimidation, so there’s still a free speech right to burn crosses, but the First Amendment doesn’t protect such acts when used to inspire violence.
Did Pastor Jones’s burning of a Quran cross that line? Given the warnings he received from top government officials last year, he certainly would have known that burning the Quran, especially after conducting an absurd “trial” for the bad things he thinks the book is responsible for, was likely to cause violence. I can’t imagine a sense in which it wouldn’t be seen as intimidating by American Muslims and by Muslims in American-occupied countries. He surely couldn’t predict how many would die because of his actions, but it was almost inevitable that someone would die. Whether he can or should be held legally culpable for those deaths, I have no doubt that he is morally culpable for them, and should be held to account in the public sphere.
To which Jones’s not-quite-defenders will insist that the blame should still rest primarily on the shoulders of those who actually killed a dozen UN workers in Afghanistan. Which is true, but only to a point. It’d be an easier case to make if the Afghan people didn’t have some cause to feel like they are in the midst of a war being waged against them and their religion by a coalition of Christian Western countries. You and I know that Jones is a nutjob who uses his cult-like church as free labor for the furniture business he and his wife run, and that he is just an attention whore, using this stunt to get free press. But given all the attention he’s gotten over the last few months from the media and our government, Afghans can be excused for thinking he might be an influential figure in American political and religious life.
It’s also not unreasonable to think that Afghans would have a lower threshold for American anti-Islamic acts than Muslims elsewhere. On a fairly regular basis, Afghan weddings get bombed and their trucks shot up by American planes and helicopters. As much as a given Afghan may not have liked the Taliban, the American puppet government is corrupt and plenty deadly in its own right. It’s fine for us to say Afghans are being too sensitive if they think a jackass in Florida is a threat or intimidation, but put yourself in their shoes.
Provocations like Jones’s are hardly new. British MP (and then cabinet member) John Denham, during Jones’s previous bout in the headlines and similar provocations in Britain:
drew comparisons with the anti-Semitic marches of the 1930s, led by Oswald Mosley’s ‘blackshirts’ and the British Union of Fascists. He said the anti-Islamics were using similar tactics to incite violence …
Mr Denham pointed to historical “parallels” with the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in October 1936, when Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, attempted to lead supporters through a Jewish area of the East End of London, leading to violent clashes.
“You could go back to the 1930s if you wanted to – Cable Street and all of those types of things. The tactic of trying to provoke a response in the hope of causing wider violence and mayhem is long established on the far-right and among extremist groups.”
However he added: “All we are facing at the moment is small. It’s nothing like the 1930s.
“But I think we need to take it seriously enough to say that there are obviously people who would like to be provocative, hope that there is not just a reaction but there is an overreaction, then people blame the people who overreact and the situation gets out of control.”
As PalMD pointed out around the same time, burning books is “not an entirely benign form of expression.” Some of Jones’s semi-defenders have trivialized the act, ignoring the symbolism and the historical resonances. PalMD wrote: “State-sponsored book burnings in Nazi Germany may be the most extreme manifestation, but book burning as a way to intimidate and to ‘erase’ ideas has a long history.” Comparing the then-threatened Quran burning to PZ Myers’s “Crackergate” stunt from a few years back (in which PZ destroyed a consecrated communion wafer), PalMD explains:
Catholics are not a “despised minority” in the U.S. It is unlikely that the public desecration of something Catholic would lead to an existential threat to the Catholic population (something that was very different a century ago when Catholics, especially Irish and southern Europeans, were systematically discriminated against). This doesn’t make Crackergate “OK”, but it puts it on a different level in a continuum of intolerance.
Muslims, on the other had, are at risk. The anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S. continues to escalate, creating real fear and real harm. The planned Qur’an burning in Florida flames this hatred. It creates a real threat to a minority already under siege….
Hateful, threatening acts like book burning must be called what they are: bigoted, evil, violent.
R. Joseph Hoffman also picks up the comparison to Crackergate, too, and speculates that Jones may be guilty of murder precisely because he – unlike PZ – intended that people die because of his actions.
To me, the most important comparison comes from an essay by John McGreevy and Scott Appleby, scholars of American Catholicism, who wrote last fall about the uncomfortable parallels between the anti-Muslim sentiment seen in actions like Jones’s, in protests against an Islamic center in lower Manhattan (the so-call Ground Zero Mosque), etc, and the anti-Catholicism of earlier eras.
For much of the nineteenth century Catholics in America were the unassimilated, sometimes violent “religious other.” Often they did not speak English or attend public schools. Some of their religious women–nuns–wore distinctive clothing. Their religious practices and beliefs–from rosaries to transubstantiation–seemed to many Americans superstitious nonsense.
Most worrisome, Catholics seemed insufficiently grateful for their ability to build churches and worship in a democracy, rights sometimes denied to Protestants and Jews in Catholic countries…
Like many American Muslims today, many American Catholics squirmed when their foreign-born religious leaders offered belligerent or tone-deaf pronouncements on the modern world….
It took Catholics more than a full century to attain their current level of acceptance and influence, and they made their share of mistakes along the way, occasionally by trying too hard to prove their patriotic bona fides. (Exhibit A: Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name is now, paradoxically, a synonym for “un-American activities.”) …
Historical comparisons are bound to be inexact; but American Muslims, like American Catholics, are now building their own religious and cultural institutions, and they are seeking guidance from a wide variety of religious sources–some few from jihadists, most from accommodationists.
We are faced with a choice (with many choices, of course, but one stands out at this moment). We can push Muslims away, slap down any attempt at moderation or accommodation (from their community and from ours). In doing so, we can force an insular dialog, in which the voices of extremism will shout down moderates, silencing them and dragging the community further into the hands of fundamentalism and authoritarianism.
Or we can reach out and support those voices, forcing those internal debates to happen in the broader context of global society, a global conversation in which authoritarianism has been repudiated time and again. By engaging, supporting, and elevating the moderate and liberal voices, we can help them marginalize the extremist voices, and show how much their is to be gained by Islamic leaders and by the Muslim world in productive engagement with the West, and with the norms of liberal democracy.
The solution to bad speech, whether the fundamentalist sermons from certain mosques, or the hateful rhetoric of Terry Jones, is more speech. We won’t turn Jones around any more than we’ll turn bin Laden around, but we can push the hateful views both of them espouse out of civil discourse.