Quran Burning and the Boundaries of Our Freedom

Pastor Terry Jones’ declaration of 9/11 as the official “Burn the Quran” day was, quite expectedly, met by fierce opposition from the Muslim world. And by opposition, I don’t just mean a barrage of statements condemning such a form of protest. Radical Islamic groups have threatened to “leave no church standing” should an event like this ever be publicly conducted. With increasing international pressure on the US government, as well as military reports that such an event could bring US troops stationed in Islamic countries under great peril, the Obama administration was forced to lean on the pastor and keep him from doing what is otherwise allowed by the constitution of the Land of the Free.

A One-Way Street?

Why must Muslims be granted the kind of privileges that the rest of us simply don’t get? “Moderate” Muslims have protested against the event on the grounds that it needlessly instigates 1.3 billion people across the world and threatens interfaith harmony.

Where were these moderate Muslims and their John-Lennonian notions of peace, harmony and respecting each others’ feelings when Muslims all across Europe were parading the streets bearing banners like, “Europe, your 9/11 is on its way!” and “Europe is the cancer! Islam is the cure!?

Such flagrant display of bigotry and arrogance was answered by silence from the moderate Muslim world. The most that I recall were a few  words of condemnation mumbled by only a handful of Islamic government officials. The rest either ignored this outrageous exploitation of freedom of expression, or worse, encouraged such protests.

But all that was okay! When the pastor announced his desire to use the same freedom of expression against Muslims, NOW all hell breaks loose. Now Muslims all around the world, in a hideous exhibition of hypocrisy, are demanding the US government to bend its own rules of freedom and pressurize the pastor into cancelling the event.

The Muslim Response

As mentioned earlier, radical Muslim groups around the world have threatened to burn down all the churches in Islamic countries around the world, because Quran burning would be perceived as a declaration of war against Islam (what isn’t these days?).

Many churches in my hometown of Rawalpindi, Pakistan have taken the precaution of hanging gigantic banners outside their gates yelling in bold words of Urdu, statements such as, “We condemn the burning of the Holy Quran!”  and “No tolerance for Blasphemy against the Holy Quran!”. The subtext of these statements is clear: “For God’s sake, don’t burn this church down!”.

The Facebook page entitled “We’ll burn the world down if you burn the holy coran” now has more than 27,000 members. And bear in mind that only the better half of the human civilization has access to amenities like Facebook (you can’t expect a 22-year old madrassa student from Qandahar, Afghanistan to be sitting on a donkey-cart, operating his Facebook account from a laptop). At this point, any stereotypes about Muslims being terrorists, or at least terrorist-friendly, seem to be appearing more and more accurate.

The West needs to stop rewarding intolerance! It needs to stop setting a precedent that the more violently a group behaves, the more they’d shower it with undue respect and privileges. Meanwhile, we’d keep humiliating and insulting the more tolerant citizens of the world by continuing to use the full might of our freedom of expression against them.

Should We Define Limits for Free Speech?

Personally, I’m against Quran-burning. It’s an archaic way to protest. At the risk of sounding like my college librarian, I can say that I hate it when people disrespect books..whatever book that may be. Also, the fact that the church is planning such an event seems rather laughable..like their own book is so moral and praise-worthy. The only difference between the Bible and the Quran, is that the Quran is taken literally by its followers while the Bible isn’t.

But is my personal annoyance with the event enough for me to demand the government to revoke the expressive freedom its own citizens? I don’t think so.

Freedom of Expression follows an all-or-none law. Either all of it is okay, or none of it is. Because the moment you pick out one group from the pool and make it immune to fierce criticism, you’re discriminating against all the remaining groups.

If you’re so keen about respecting people’s feelings, why not pass a bill banning the manufacture and sales of sandals and bikinis with Hindu gods drawn on them? I’m sure Hindus of the world would appreciate such a move. And while you’re at it, why not make heroes of Atheism like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking immune to the kind of harsh criticism and ridicule that they face everyday? Why not ban public criticism of politicians, which deeply irks their supporters?

You can’t keep granting special privileges to religious people just because they slap the magic word of “sacred” onto everything. What will it take for the non-religious people of the world to get the same respect? Do we need to attach the suffix of PBUH to the name of Christopher Hitchens to keep him, and along with him the entire Atheist Alliance, from being made fun of?

At this point, all I can do is to appeal to the hypersensitive, hyperestrogenomic masses of this planet to grow thicker skin..and realize that their beliefs are just as open to criticism and scrutiny as those of any other soul in the world.

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  1. Hey Faraz, I can imagine that it’s frustrating to be surrounded by that stuff, it all seems quite far away here. Anyway I don’t think that moderate Muslims have a RESPONSIBILITY to make their voices heard and condemn crazy behaviour by extremists. I don’t take responsibility for the crazy things done by Irish nationalist terrorist groups, for example.

    Nonetheless you’re right that it would HELP if the moderates were the noisier ones, the ones that non-Muslims first associate with Islam. For many non-Muslims who don’t actually know Muslims in person, their only experience of Islam is via the extremists.

    One little quibble, though: the Quran burning was planned by a church, not “the” church. “The Church” is usually meant to mean the Catholic Church, who had no part to play in this daft affair!

    I will follow your blog with interest 🙂

      • farazspeaks
      • September 16th, 2010

      I always enjoy reading your posts, Shane. Your ability to assess everything with an impartial, unprejudiced eye is a rare trait.

      I agree with you the it’s not the responsibility of the moderates to condemn occurrences and actions which are so obviously abominable anyway. I was merely pointing out the hypocrisy of the moderate Muslims to turn a blind eye to the gross misuse of freedom of expression by members of their own ranks (more or less), and suddenly become so fiercely vocal when that same freedom is used by a different group.

      • That’s it Faraz.

        I hate conflict! I want to stand in the middle and prise fighters apart. One way to do that is to tackle the simplistic narratives that people use to explain world events – the Clash of Civilisation concepts. So I kinda get a kick out of pointing inconvenient facts out to the extremists on either hand 😛

    • Ahmed
    • September 16th, 2010

    Muslims extremists exists 9even though some say they are zionists:P) but they appear to be muslims. Before moderate muslim go hypocrite. If we see the past, the same moderate muslim was tortured after 9/11 around the world. 9/11 the event that turned from political into religious. started with george bush calling war on terror as crusade. the world reacted by pin pointing the same simple moderate muslim. torturing their daily life in states. Moderate muslims still called for justice against cartoons. A handful extremists can control moderate muslims reminding the injustice they faced after 9/11. So 9/11 and after effects made these muslims insecure about their religion.
    and everyone holds their religion dear especially muslims. and this insecurity has made religion a more personal topic for muslims. so a respect for all religions in freedom of speech will not be such a bad idea. Because it is a sensitive topic for all of us and something keeps on happening to instigate muslims. moderate separate themselves from extremists but they equally hold in Islam in revere. They demand that Islam doesn’t get attack as a result of some dumb extremists who have twisted the teachings of islam for their own affair and desperate need of attention.

    • Hassam
    • September 16th, 2010

    I absolutely agree with the general hypocritical nature of our society, where tempers flair when it comes to islam while brutal murders of non muslims are at best seen apathetically. However the case of muslim extremist protests in Europe where the muslim world seems silent in general, while the burning of the quran incidence triggered wide spread condemnation can be explained. In fact Shane’s first comment is the perfect example where he points out how it all seemed so far away from where he lives. Muslim protests however extreme in Europe are irrelevant to our part of the world as in that it triggers no effect or reaction here, thus rendering any comment by a noteworthy person useless. In fact most extremist protest around europe go unnoticed here. However our anti-Islam trigger sensitive society suddenly jolts into action when anything is remotely seen as anti-islamic. Condemnations follow not because we really dislike the creators of south park, the young girl who created the facebook page or this church fellow, but rather to soothe tempers here, avoid violent protests where angry mobs damage us, destroy our infrastructures and properties, killing a few people while at it. In these scenarios it all isnt far away enough to not bother those at the helm of affairs here. unfortunately the internet and mass media have improved the odds of such information filtering through to affect us.

    I am not trying to justify their selective silence, just explaining what I feel could be a reason.

      • loneliberalpk
      • September 17th, 2010

      Condemnation is perfectly fine! In fact, it was prudent of Obama to condemn the event to remind the world that the Pastor’s opinion of Islam isn’t the general opinion of all Americans.

      However, when one demands such protests to be interfered with or forcefully shut down, that’s where it gets unfair. If the Europeans or the Americans never interfered with Muslims burning their flags and taunting non-Muslims that “Islam will dominate the world”, then what right do Muslims have to demand intervention for their own sake?

        • Ahmed
        • September 17th, 2010

        google anti islam rally and you will see muslims arenot the only one protesting. However there must be a limit to protest. Burning of what muslims hold as code of life is going to spark even the weakest of muslim.

    • farazspeaks
    • September 17th, 2010

    @Ahmed,

    Feeling “offended” is subjective. You cannot make a claim that “I am more offended by a cartoon of Muhammad, than a Scientologist is offended by a cartoon of L.Ron.Hubbard”.

    And the court of law cannot define boundaries to free speech on the basis of things like, “Okay, since Muslims are raising more of a ruckus about cartoons of Muhammad than Scientologists are for caricatures of Hubbard, therefore we’ll ban Muhammad cartoons and give a nod to Hubbard caricatures.”

    Because should that be the case, then we’d end up immunizing the masses with greater volume, leaving the minorities and the more tolerant citizens open to the full blast of free speech, which is sheer discrimination.

      • Hassam
      • September 18th, 2010

      In theory all your demands are legit; muslims should allow any kind of protestation if they expect to protest themselves. The systematic shutdown of a protest to appease one over the other shows a lack of respect to the other, its ironic how muslims demand for showing some respect comes at the cost of disrespecting the other. In theory all should hold an equal right to protest.
      In practice however that will not be the case because, as a matter of fact, a violent mob with religious zeal commands a certain amount of respect. Justified? probably not but heres why. When it comes to religious sentiments, a cloud covers all logic and reason for most half educated people, a cloud which is exponentially darker with the uneducated lot. So much so that ideas of freedom, progress, rationality, which they would otherwise cherish(or not as in our case) would become secondary behind the emotions of anger. If a society lacks tolerance that anger can turn into violence, which would then be a problem.
      This is not an exclusively islamic problem. Hypatia of Alexandria, the most intelligent woman of her time, had to pay the ultimate price at the hands of a zealous mob as far back as the 3rd century. Our subcontinent has a very violent history in terms of an angry lot of people killing others in the name of blaspheming, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian or otherwise. Scenes of which are occasionally repeated on either side of the divide even today.
      Am i proposing succumbing to a mob of untamed, uneducated lot who have no respect for freedom and progress. No, although in retrospect maybe Ancient Athens, Baghdad, and Alexandria might have. I firmly believe human progress is at the very least a couple hundred years behind due to the annihilation of these powerhouses of science by angry mobs. If there is anything history teaches us, it is that an angry zealous lot should be shown some respect, sometimes at the cost of others, before it gets out of hand. Unfortunately this is a burden the free world will have to carry until these people can progress to an acceptable level of tolerance.

        • loneliberalpk
        • September 18th, 2010

        Well said..

        However, instead of allowing the intolerant groups near-full immunity by swiftly silencing any major protest against their ideology, the West must consider a plan to systematically desensitize them. A mass Quran burning, like I alluded to in the article, is too archaic (what is it with the church and burning stuff anyway?). But something like it needs to be pulled off to remind Muslims that their beliefs are as open to scrutiny and protest as anyone else’s.

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