Muslims, Quran Burnings, and the Problem of Freedom of Speech

Muslims, Quran Burnings, and the Problem of Freedom of Speech

 It’s good that Pastor Terry Jones is considering backing down from his plan to burn 200 Qurans. Obama and Petraeus, correctly, anticipated that such an act would have dire repercussions and provoke anti-American activity throughout the world (it already has). We saw what happened with the Danish cartoon controversy and drawing a bunch of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad is considerably more mild than burning the book that Muslims consider the literal, exact word of God. 

But herein lies a problem. I remember getting into a conversation with a relative – an American citizen – about the Danish cartoons. He suggested that there should be some sort of international ban, enforced by the UN (I’m not sure how), on offensive depictions of religious figures. When I heard this, I thought to myself, “you’re sort of missing the point here.” Meanwhile, Muqtedar Khan, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Delaware, is regarded as one of the more progressive – I’ve imposed a moratorium on using the word “moderate” without quotation marks – American Muslim voices. But he has written a bizarre and, quite frankly, frightening article about the Quran burnings (via Isaac Chotiner). For example:

The act will scorch Muslim hearts everywhere. The searing pain will never be forgotten…Believe me, there is nothing more precious to Muslims than the Quran, and watching people toss it into fire, will be horrifying. I would rather burn in fire myself, than watch a Quran burn.

I have to admit – the first time I heard about Pastor Jones’s Quran burning scheme, it disturbed me a bit, but in the same way that a Sarah Palin speech disturbs me – it bothers me, makes me fear for my country, but, after 10 minutes, you sort of shrug it off. In contrast, when I first heard about the Danish cartoons a couple years back, I literally didn’t care and had trouble understanding how people could get so worked up about it.

While Obama was right to condemn Pastor Jones’s actions, we probably should be clear about first principles. The burning of Qurans, as offensive as it is to common decency, is – and must be – protected speech. The right not to be offended, as many conservatives in the wake of the Park51 issue seem to have forgotten, is not a protected right. For me, as a Muslim, it is troubling that a good chunk of co-religionists around the world support of freedom of speech in abstract terms, but do not think that freedom should extend to religious expression. The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, is calling for the expulsion of US ambassadors. This is absurd. Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood spokesman who conveyed this position, knows better, or at least I hope he does. He lived in the US a while back and did his PhD in California (USC if I recall). 

It’s like when certain individuals and organizations in the Arab world called for a "ban" on Denmark over the Danish cartoons. The notion that the Danish government doesn’t have any control over media organizations – and, more importantly, shouldn’t – appeared to have been lost on many. 

People often ask me how Muslims can get so worked up about symbolic acts but have trouble summoning the same anger over the killing of innocent civilians. It is understandable, if somewhat loaded, question. It is also difficult to explain. This is a civilization under siege and so its reactions and preferences become distorted. The slow, difficult work of understanding how this distortion occurred – and what we can do about it – is more critical than ever.