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The Danger Greater Than Pastor Jones

<ok-burning has a deservedly poor reputation.  When the pastor of an obscure 30-member Florida church Tweeted his intention in late July to stage a “9/11/2010 International Burn-a-Koran Day,” his festival first gained attention in northern Florida, then earned mention in an Islam-related blog maintained by a Harvard divinity professor, and from there went viral.  By early this month, the handlebar-mustache-sporting clergyman had become international news, a target of frenzied opposition in much of the Islamic world and of serious consternation among global leaders.  The Obama Administration and the military establishment considered Pastor Terry Jones’ plan to burn copies of the Koran a serious threat for American troops overseas; in fact, the reaction to this potential threat was so severe that Defense Secretary Robert Gates personally contacted the pastor, persuading him to cease and desist. 

But Pastor Jones is not the problem.  The vastness of The United States allows for small and outspoken communities of the clinically insane and the merely mean.  To paraphrase a statement of the late Senator Roman Hruska, “There are a lot of nutty people.  They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?”  Of course.  And for this reason, our system of government entitles Klansmen to demonstrate in full regalia in front of courthouses in majority-black Southern towns and neo-Nazis to goose-step through heavily Jewish suburbs.  With exceptions, these displays of civic virtue go unmolested.  I repeat: displays of civic virtue.  That most Americans can witness a Pastor Jones, ignore or peaceably condemn and ridicule him, and then go about their daily business displays the fiber of the republic.  Our society is strong enough to withstand corrosive words and symbols.

The sad truth is that most Muslim societies are not.  I do not mean to imply that an intolerance of offense and criticism is a Muslim monopoly.  For this reason I applaud the concept of an Islamic cultural center in New York with the explicit mission of interfaith dialogue, despite its unfortunate site.  Most faiths and states grapple with infringement upon expression to a degree.  No right-minded person would consider the non-Muslim China, Venezuela, or Zimbabwe bastions of openness.  Even in open Western Europe, what might be called militant secularism and extremist groups command considerable popular support.  I maintain, however, that Muslim society becomes unduly flummoxed in the face of dissent.  

Salman Rushdie knows this all too well.  Of course, many states seek to exercise their will extraterritorially.  But few have been so blatant as the Islamic Republic of Iran as to condemn to death a writer–whose residence was several thousand miles away–for the alleged defamation of Islam.  I speak of a 20-year-old incident, but the hot intolerance remains.  The 2005 publication of a Danish cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed unflatteringly provoked Libya to sever diplomatic relations with Denmark and Saudi Arabia to withdraw its ambassador from Copenhagen.  At about this time, state-sanctioned boycotts of Danish goods commenced in other Islamic states.  It is also general practice in Saudi Arabia, and frequent practice in Egypt, Malaysia, and Pakistan, among others, to enforce Islamic orthodoxy and to limit contradicting practices. 

There are exceptions, of course.  Turkey and Indonesia are relative bastions of religious toleration and free political expression.  The United States appears largely free of the Islamic radicalism characterizing many Muslim communities in Western Europe, and in some African and Asian states, Muslims and others coexist mostly peacefully and on some degree of equality and mutual understanding.  With these happy examples of toleration and coexistence aside, only a handful of the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference can truthfully be called free. 

It is indisputably for the better that Jones canceled his pyre.  I have no doubt that General David Petraeus and Secretary Gates were entirely sincere in their fears for the physical safety of Americans in the Middle East.  Quite plausibly, the masses in the Islamic states that have reacted so extremely to perceived insults to Islam applaud their governments’ reactions.  I have heard no suggestion that the spontaneity of the Afghan and Pakistani protests against Jones–which resulted in perhaps 20 deaths, many beatings, and property damage–were anything but genuine.  These protests, like the similarly deadly protests five years ago which featured the arson of many Danish embassies in the Middle East, and like those following the 2006 airing of an episode of the Comedy Central sitcom South Park which also satirized Mohammed, underlined the seriousness of the brass’s fears.

The effort to stop Jones misses the forest for the pyre, so to speak.  There is no question that the desecration of any religious object is repulsive.  But is it a sustainable situation in which a Cabinet secretary must phone an extremist with no leverage save video in order to beg his restraint?  Law could not (and should not) restrain Jones, and neither could widespread obloquy.  Nothing failsafe exists to stop other Joneses, including those less solicitous of the safety of our troops.  If we cannot stop Jones, then what are we to do?  The inability to tolerate offense within Islam seems widespread and intractable.  I suggest that the energies of the free world would be better expended responding to the conditions in Muslim society cultivating such a reaction.  Though every culture must choose its own mores, perhaps ours can furnish examples of civil reaction to offense.   

About a decade ago in my native New York City, an artistic work had offended the sensibilities of many Roman Catholics.  An exhibit at the partially city-funded Brooklyn Museum contained a depiction of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant excrement.  Then-Cardinal O’Connor spoke against the exhibit and then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sought to revoke the museum’s annual municipal grant.  Giuliani faced heated opposition from none other than Hillary Clinton, and also practically the entire cultural establishment of the city.  An injunction from a federal judge soon prevented the museum’s defunding.  That American liberals seized upon this incident to execrate supposed American religious fanaticism in the loudest and most frenzied fashion only compounds proof that our society is strong enough to withstand, well, freedom.     

My humble advice to the Muslim whom Jones has grievously offended ought to be cliches:  Understand that in the Information Age, anyone with the least wherewithal can say the damnedest things, you included.  Just as a pastor in Florida can publicize his Koran pyre, a Yemeni imam can issue a fatwa urging the death of a politically incorrect cartoonist in Portland, Oregon.  An action does not always merit a response.  Some things are best left alone.  Take that tremendous anger, that boiling rage, and direct it towards those Islamic governments that pervert Abrahamic notions of goodness and justice.  The furthest thing from the mind of the average Yemeni, Egyptian, or Afghan should be the idiocy of a flash-in-the-pan celebrity, which is all Jones is. 

-James Kerson is a Carletonian columnist

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