Does anyone remember Terry Jones?  I don’t mean the guy from Monty Python.  He’s the Gainesville, Florida pastor who threatened to burn a Koran back in August 2010.  He finally went through with it in April of last year, in spite of repeated requests against it from pretty much everyone including about a dozen other churches in the area.

... make sure ... your beard is ... nice and level ... Burma-Shave!

I thought this was a fundamentally stupid idea for two reasons:

  1. The motivation behind his burning the Koran was his way of telling the world “my god is better than your god”.  He believes the Koran is “full of lies” and Islam is “of the devil”, and that they are enemies of Christianity.  Such attitudes, while popular among members of his own small congregation and undoubtedly thousands of others in this country, just helps encourage more anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence that has become commonplace after 9/11.  It’s nothing more than religious zealotry, racism, and xenophobia wrapped up in one ignorant little package.
  2. Making a public scene out of burning the Koran will cause significant problems for our troops overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, from individual citizens up to heads of state.  As soon as this started getting any publicity, I knew that there would be riots in the streets resulting in injury, death, destruction of property, and yet more propaganda for recruiting another generation of suicide bombers.  This would not go unnoticed or unpunished.

That was my prediction of what would happen.  Sooooo …. what actually went down the day after he had his little book burning?

April 1:

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — Stirred up by three angry mullahs who urged them to avenge the burning of a Koran at a Florida church, thousands of protesters on Friday overran the compound of the United Nations in this northern Afghan city, killing at least 12 people, Afghan and United Nations officials said.

The dead included at least seven United Nations workers — four Nepalese guards and three Europeans from Romania, Sweden and Norway — according to United Nations officials in New York. One was a woman. Early reports, later denied by Afghan officials, said that at least two of the dead had been beheaded. Five Afghans were also killed.

April 2:

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Violent protests over the burning of a Koran in Florida flared Saturday for a second straight day, with young men rampaging through the streets of this southern capital city, flying Taliban flags and wielding sticks.

Nine people were killed and 81 wounded in the disturbances, all from bullet wounds, said Abdul Qayoum Pakhla, head of the provincial health department. Kandahar has long been the heartland of the Taliban insurgency but has been relatively quiet in recent months since a surge of additional American troops arrived here.

Big surprise.  But let’s take a look at this situation again:  this is all because some uneducated, xenophobic nut in America burned the holy book of another religion.  That’s all it took for thousands of people on the other side of the world to go completely unhinged and start rioting, murdering people, and burning things down.  This isn’t the first time it’s happened, either.  Remember this?

When a Danish cartoonist lampooned the Prophet Muhammad, four people were killed in riots in Afghanistan within days in 2006. The year before, a one-paragraph item in Newsweek alleging that guards at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a Koran down the toilet set off three days of riots that left 14 people dead in Afghanistan.

The first group of deaths was because some cartoonists drew the face of their prophet in a newspaper.  (This was, ironically, about the issue of free speech and expression in media.  So much for that.)  Four people died and the cartoonist had at least one attempt on his life.  The second was because some jackasses flushed allegedly flushed a Koran down the toilet.

We're here to protest disproportionate responses to minor offenses!!

Again, I can understand the special case of why we’re being so careful in this country, and it’s for the same reasons I went into above regarding the Koran burning.  So when some US army personnel accidentally dumped some copies into an incinerator, I understood why the State Department apologized as soon as they found out.

Not that it did any good.  The protests started on Tuesday, and 20 people have died since then.  The UN compound in Kunduz was attacked, several shops and government buildings were burnt down, and the governor’s house in Lagham Province was also attacked.  Later on in the week, two NATO officers were shot dead in what was claimed as revenge for the Koran burnings.  And all of this is because of an accident.  This wasn’t even done deliberately, there was an apology, and all of this violence still happened.

I’m not suggesting that Muslims don’t have the right to be angry or offended that their religion is being treated with disrespect.  I can’t imagine any religious person, regardless of their belief, being thrilled about seeing a copy of their holy book being set on fire or flushed down the loo, page by page … but there has to be a logical, rational limit to that anger and a realization that not everyone shares the same values they do.  To experience a mass psychotic break as a result of these offenses, no matter how small, says that there’s either something inherently wrong with that religion or its application in the context of daily life.  Given the similar (though obviously not identical) ideas shared between the Koran and the Old Testament combined with the muted response in secular Muslim countries over these matters, I’m inclined to think it’s more an issue of practical application than anything inherent in the belief structure.

In the interest of fairness, I have to point out that Christianity certainly had its time in the sun in this regard.  There was about a thousand-year block of time when opposition to the will of the church or criticism of its teachings would get you excommunication, torture, burning at the stake, or some other unpleasant fate.  This sort of paranoia and insecurity is not, by any means, exclusive to any one religion.

This is why I don’t like talking about the issue of religious “tolerance” very much.  I have already made it clear that as long as you don’t try to legislate your religion, teach it as fact in a public school, or harm anyone else in the process, I have no problem with it whatsoever.  Have a blast, believe what you like.  I may not agree with you, but I won’t discriminate against you because of it.  In my opinion, that’s all the tolerance I need to have. However, when it takes the form of constantly having to worry about insulting a group of imams on the other side of the world so they don’t call for your head on a pike if you dare criticize them or draw their prophet’s picture … that’s not tolerance.  That’s being held hostage by a bunch of crazy people.  The responsibility for acting like adults is on them, not us.

I, personally, would never burn a Koran or any other “holy” book.  Even though I believe they have significant cultural and literary merit, in the metaphysical sense I believe they’re nothing more than words printed on paper by men so I have no spiritual objection to it.  While doing so would be protected by my right to free speech, I think actually carrying it out wouldn’t do anything more than make me come across like some kind of asshole atheist with a chip on his shoulder and an unhealthy desire for attention.

As for drawing pictures of Mohammad, I generally take the same position.  I wouldn’t do it because I just don’t want to unnecessarily antagonize people for no reason.  On the other hand, the violent response on the part of some Muslims to any criticism of their religion makes me understand why the Danish cartoonists did what they did back in 2005.  This is from Jyllands-Posten’s culture editor Flemming Rose:

The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where one must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context. […] we are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him. […]

The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.

Obviously this doesn’t completely apply in the context of American society, but the argument is still valid.  I may not agree with the random depiction of Mohammad just for the sake of shock or offense value as I said before, but in the context of protesting or pushing back against the self-censorship imposed because of the tragically disproportionate response it gets by some fringe minority elements of the population, I can see their point.

This entry was posted in Freedom from Religion, Profiles in Fundamentalism, Religion and Public Life, Religion in the News and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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