The Freedom to Offend: Pastor Terry Jones and Islam

UN Afghanistan“Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of offending culture, religion or traditions.”
Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, who is wrong about that

It feels weird having to defend a bizarre, craven Christian-supremacist.

Imagine this. A young Saudi woman in the United States, wishing to join the “Saudi Women Revolution Statement” demanding the abolition of the Saudi law of Male Guardianship, especially the wilayat al-nikah, burns a Koran, finding license for that doctrine in its proclamation that “men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient” (4:34). In retribution for the desecration, Afghan men slaughter eleven U.N. workers, beheading two. Who among the readers would condemn her for the massacre?

Another hypothetical. What if Sinead O’Connor’s famous appearance on Saturday Night Live, in which she tore a photo of the then-Pope to publicize Catholic nefariousness, had happened two years later in 1994, during the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, the most Catholic nation in Africa? If some Rwandans had, hearing of the television event, brutally slaughtered some of the peacekeepers in vengeance, what conscionable person would have lain blame at O’Connor’s feet?

Now, tearing a photograph of the man whom the world’s billion Catholics are under strict instructions to affirm is the infallible vicar of Christ on Earth may be slightly different from burning a book that the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are under strict instructions to affirm is the final and unalterable revelation of God (and that those who do not accept this revelation are to be slain), but it’s not different enough to undermine the obvious conclusion. People who enact the most extreme sorts of violence in response to non-violent free expression of any sort are to be condemned in the strongest terms, and the free expression, however offensive to however many, deserves our most fervent defense every time.

It seems a pity to have to point it out. Anyone should be able to burn any book without fear that they or anyone else will get killed in retribution. This even applies to unsavory, Elmer Gantry-like pastors in Florida who know little about sophisticated theology and less about attractive facial hair. Also, cartooning and depicting characters in novels should be acts that don’t strike terror into hearts or result in international murder conspiracies whose suborning is financed by totalitarian theocratic despots. I affirm now, as I’m sure we all ought to, that no man need fear for his or anyone else’s life if he offends me (and I’m offended daily), and that’s as it should be.

Terry Jones’s sundry pronouncements of his intentions have been very clear: he thinks Islam is evil and violent. He is entitled to that assessment, and a great many thinking persons would agree with it. He asserts now that this point was proven in Mazar-i-Sharif, and no one has shown this assertion to be unjust. Of course it is true that Jones is not a free speech hero (I daresay his response to an Imam burning a Bible would be cringe-making), but that does not mitigate the main point: it betrays a really serious and powerful lack of moral perspective to condemn Terry Jones for burning a book rather than Afghanis for beheading foreign workers over the burning (or even to condemn them equally).

In 1999, Rudy Giuliani, then the Mayor of New York City, threatened to cut city financing to the Brooklyn Museum of Art over an exhibit called Sensation, which featured a painting by Chris Ofili (who is Catholic) entitled The Holy Virgin Mary, in which the immaculately conceived Nazarene lady is depicted as a black woman. Among the media used to produce the piece was a resin-covered lump of elephant dung. The good mayor, before the 9/11 attacks brought him national recognition, accused the exhibit of being “anti-Catholic” and warned the museum that he would move to de-fund it. Hillary Clinton, then the First Lady, attacked Giulliani, saying, “Our feelings of being offended should not lead to the penalizing and shutting down of an entire museum.” And yet, when people’s feelings of being offended results in gut-wrenching violence, huge swaths of the political and punditry classes rush to repudiate the offender rather than the murderers.

Joe Klein, finger out and wagging, breathlessly declares that “Jones’s act was murderous as any suicide bomber’s.” General David Petraeus grovels and snivels, offering contrition on Jones’ behalf: “In view of the events of recent days, we feel it is important… to reiterate our condemnation of any disrespect to the Holy Qu’ran and the Muslim faith. We condemn, in particular, the action of an individual in the United States who recently burned the Holy Qu’ran.” Even Hamid Karzai puts on his best indignant face, demanding that the US and UN “bring to justice the perpetrators of this crime,” there referring to the burning, not the beheading. This is the most outrageous of all because any criteria that foists culpability on Jones also implicates Karzai, who stoked that fire as enthusiastically as he could, in a cynical attempt to secure political benefits from the controversy.

This sort of violence is not Jones’ fault; it is attributable instead to the ease with which people can be tricked into thinking that a book is perfect or magical. Can anyone point to a case in which victims of imperialism, exploitation, impoverishment, disrespect, parasitism, exclusion and manipulation went out and beheaded folks in an anger inspired by something like the burning of a book, when religion was not central? If someone cartoons Muhammed, there is bound to be bloodshed. But not if someone were to burn the Constitution or The Origin of Species or The Feminine Mystique (a profane act of hideous desecration). And if there were, what commentator would assign fault to the book-burner?

The irony is that anyone wishing to condemn hateful speech that incites violence has first and foremost to denounce the Torah, the Bible and Koran, which have incited people to worse violence for longer than any piddling Floridian dunce could ever manage.

Are you prepared to do that?

J.A. Myerson, Executive Editor of the Busy Signal, is the Artistic Director of Full of Noises and a teaching artist with Urban Arts Partnership. He writes primarily on American Politics and Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter.