Much has been said and written over the Florida pastor who was threatening to burn copies of the Koran last week—quite amazing quantities of mass media attention, refracted into the electronic “logosphere.” Little I saw made any sense, however, so I will try to make some in the calm of the week after.
Pastor Terry Jones, a crank from all appearances, with his little Gainesville congregation of less than 50 souls, was able to command international media attention by threatening to do something that is easily within anyone’s power.
Granted, I am growing older, but for this very reason I retain a memory of the decline in journalistic standards of judgment. “Transgressive” stunts are nothing new, but I think North American journalists of the generation immediately before mine would have avoided the story on the reasoning: “This cannot do anyone any good.”
Journalists are not alone in poor judgment, though. Pastor Jones soon received attention from the President of the United States, the Defence Secretary, the Secretary of State, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and various other prominent pleaders, all of whom increased his power for mischief thereby, while diminishing the reputation of their own country. In the event, Jones became persuaded that God was telling him to call the stunt off; by which time people had already been killed in Muslim rioting, including at least two in Afghanistan.
Here it is worth noting that, for all his flakiness, Jones was willing to stand down. Compare Feisal Abdul Rauf, whose project to build an “Islamic cultural centre” at the edge of Ground Zero in Manhattan is offensive to a large majority of Americans and who has been made vividly aware of that fact. He has, by law, as much right to build it as Jones to burn copies of the Koran in the same remarkably free country.
But the question for both is: “Why are you doing this?” It applies with greater force to Rauf and associates for they have been assured by almost everyone who is offended that they are welcome to build their centre anywhere else; that the issue is not religious freedom, but location, location, location.
Here we look into the deep well of hypocrisy that feeds all contemporary “progressive” thought—and which Rauf has been happily exploiting by using smooth leftist “rights” jargon in all his public utterances. The “transgressive act” is to be encouraged, imperiously, when one class of people are offended—average Americans in this case. It is to be vilified if another class of people are offended—average Muslims in the Pastor Jones case.
Remember that we are comparing a huge, permanent, symbolic building to a little passing bonfire that did not finally occur. Note that in both cases the same specious argument has been made central: that, “You must do as we say or else Muslims will riot all over the globe.”
This is in itself an argument that every free man must despise, whether he is Christian or Muslim or anything else. Yes, prudence and decency require that we avoid giving offence as an end in itself, and thus candour requires that we spell out our better reasons for proceeding. But no, we do not answer to the argument of thugs.
Thus far, I am echoing things I have read at least somewhere: that, “If you think Koran-burning can only cause an international conflagration, then why are you giving it as much publicity as you can?”
To which I think the obvious answer is: “This gives us an opportunity to create a false equivalence between Bible-thumping Americans and Islamist terrorists; to lecture America smugly on ‘intolerance’; and provide a “teachable moment” against religious faith generally.”
As at least one commentator noted (Bruce Bawer in City Journal), we wouldn’t have heard about it had someone proposed to burn a stack of Bibles, or copies of the Bhagavad Gita, or the Dhammapada, or the Book of Mormon—or an American flag in Kabul. Indeed, the U.S. military burns Bibles shipped to Afghanistan, in order to assuage local sensibilities.
Fear, and the exploitation of fear, were directly involved in this news judgment, so that we must add moral cowardice to our charge sheet.
But there is a further point I have seen made nowhere, in the four years since Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address. It is that differences in moral and theological outlook between the religions of the world (including “secular atheism” in its various dogmatic forms) should be discussed openly and calmly, and argued reasonably, using reason itself as the common human standard.
Beneath the media frenzy was the implicit assumption that all disagreements on questions of belief must, by necessity, be violent. That is more fanatical and destructive than anything Pastor Jones proposed to do.