A Koran, and Free Speech, In Flames

Enraged over the burning of a Koran in Florida, Muslims have murdered about 20 people in Afghanistan and five in Pakistan—none of whom ever burned a Koran or had any acquaintance with the men who did.

These killers are monstrous.  They have assassinated innocent people for something that they couldn’t conceivably have had anything to do with.  And yet instead of calling them monstrous and demanding that Islamic leaders stop inciting and approving of such behavior, Western government and media elites are blaming not the murderers and rioters, but the man behind the Koran-burning, the notorious Christian fundamentalist pastor Terry Jones.

Thus Guardian editor Matt Seaton explained that Jones was to blame because his Koran-burning was “done knowingly involving reckless endangerment, and quite possibly wishing for this kind of bad result.”  This assumed that the Muslims who were rioting and killing over the burning of a book half a world away had no control over their reactions, and thus could not be held accountable for them:  For enlightened leftists such as Seaton, it is the West’s responsibility to make sure the Islamic world behaves in a civilized manner.  How paternalistic and ethnocentric of those most committed to multiculturalism.

Barack Obama reacted the same way when Jones first threatened to burn a Koran last year.  He said that “this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women who are in uniform.  Look, this is a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda.  You could have serious violence in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Obama found the burning of the Koran, and the burning of any book, distasteful, as do I.  But that was why he should have stood up for Terry Jones.  Speech that is inoffensive needs no protection, and those in power can all too easily use “hate speech” codes to restrict speech they find politically inconvenient or challenging.  Obama could have said:  “While I disapprove of this Koran-burning, in America we believe that freedom of expression is a fundamental bulwark against tyranny and the hallmark of a truly free society, and it requires us to put up with things we don’t like without responding with violence.”

He could, in short, have used Jones’ barbecued Koran as a teaching tool to demonstrate why free societies are preferable to sharia states.  But instead, Obama and the media are effectively reinforcing the principle that violent intimidation works:  They knew that somewhere in the world Muslims were going to behave like rabid dogs because of the burned Koran, and instead of telling them to grow up and act like civilized people, they are demanding that free people change the way they behave to adjust to this case of rabies.

Obama could and should be telling these rioting Afghans and Pakistanis, and those who are defending them, to realize that if someone burns a Koran in Florida, it doesn’t harm them, or the Koran, or Allah, or Muhammad.  He could and should tell them that to respond with irrational violence against people who are not involved with the burning (or even against the people who are involved with it) is just savagery.

People like Obama and Seaton have forgotten, if they ever knew, that one’s response to someone else’s provocative action is entirely one’s own responsibility.  If you do something that offends me, I am under no obligation to kill you, or to run to the United Nations to try to get laws passed that will silence you.  I am free to ignore you, or laugh at you, or to respond with charity, or any number of reactions.

Everyone in the world is so busy condemning Terry Jones that they have forgotten about freedom of expression, and why it is so important to reinforce even when we find the expression detestable—indeed, especially in such cases.  And so, if we continue down this path, one thing is certain:  That which is not understood or valued will not be protected, and so it will be lost.

Those who censor themselves today to keep from offending Muslims may wish in the not-too-distant future that they had stood up more robustly for the freedom of speech when it was threatened.  But by then, there might be no chance for them to get that word out.

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