On Qur’an Burning, Redux

A few months ago, I wrote briefly about an obscure Florida pastor who had the idea of burning a Qur’an. At the time he backed off under intense pressure, but later changed his mind and went through with it. This would have gone nowhere, except that some Islamic mullahs in Afghanistan (aided by Hamid Karzai, who cynically fanned the flames), incited their worshippers to frenzy. The mob proceeded to storm a U.N. compound, brutally killing a dozen U.N. employees. Protests and riots are still ongoing, and more people have been killed.

I deplore this violence, as any civilized person would. But I don’t believe that, just because bad things happened, there must have been a way to prevent them. Unfortunately, it seems that in this I part company with two U.S. senators who hinted that they were looking for a way to punish the book-burner (“Free speech is a great idea, but…”) Even more appallingly, the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, was quoted as follows:

“I don’t think we should be blaming any Afghan. We should be blaming the person who produced the news – the one who burned the Quran,” he said.

Reading sentiments like this, I feel like Greta Christina must have done when writing about Fred Phelps: I hate having to write this post. I hate having to defend this wannabe cult leader with delusions of grandeur who would, if he could, impose a theocracy scarcely distinguishable from the Taliban’s. I hate having to give more attention to someone who obviously has an unhealthy craving for it (which is why, you’ll notice, I’m not naming him in this post).

But First Amendment test cases rarely come about because of popular or nice people. If we don’t have the freedom to utter speech that annoys, upsets, even infuriates other people, then we don’t have free speech. The freedom to express only opinions that don’t make anyone upset isn’t worth defending.

I’ll grant that, very probably, the pastor staged the book-burning as a deliberate provocation, intending that something like this would happen. But however malicious his motives, his act was a nonviolent expression of opinion. He may have foreseen how Afghans would react, but he didn’t control how they would react. They could have marched in peaceful protest, as so many others throughout the Middle East have done, and put him to shame by claiming the moral high ground.

Instead, some of them exploded in unreasoning savagery, choosing to murder innocent people for the act of a deluded nobody half a world away. No destruction of ink and paper, regardless of how petty the motive, can ever justify or excuse the taking of human lives. Put the blame where it belongs! – on the mob that committed those murders, and on the insane religious beliefs that motivated them. These fanatics believe that human individuals, every one of them unique and irreplaceable, are less valuable than one particular copy of a mass-produced book. Isn’t that belief more deserving of condemnation than anything an attention-seeking ignoramus has done?

Even if you grant that the Qur’an burning was deplorable and should be punished, what principle could we invoke to justify it that wouldn’t also sweep up a vast number of other speech acts? What rule could we make that wouldn’t be open to endless abuse? Consider some parallel cases:

There will always be thugs who want to impose their beliefs by force, and who will lash out at the slightest provocation. But we as a society can’t limit permissible speech to only those messages guaranteed not to offend them. That principle incentivizes violent irrationality. It says that, if you want your doctrine or your ideas to be shielded from criticism, all you have to do is threaten to get violent, and then the machinery of the state will swing into action to protect you from other people’s disagreement. This is the very definition of a perverse incentive, and it’s exactly what the thugs want. All the more reason not to give into them – neither by censoring our own speech, nor by letting the state censor the speech of others. If we shelter violent insanity from criticism, the advocates of those beliefs will only become more emboldened and aggressive.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Jeff

    I heard him on the news the other day, making statements about Muslim volatility and the lack of respect for free speech in cultures dominated by Islam – statements with which I agreed, essentially. It kills me that he was the one who was making them.

    How about this – can he be prosecuted for being a f*cking asshole?

  • Dan

    While I agree with his right to free speech, what gets me is that he’s a Christian minister, preaching Jesus’ love, yet knowing full well what kind of response he’d get to the book burning. If anything, he’s a hypocrite to his own religion. I don’t think the government should or could do anything without interfering with his rights. But I wonder how his god would see his behavior with respect to practicing what he preaches.

  • L.Long

    The one thing you can count on is ANYONE who says..”Free speech is a great idea, but…” …means he could care less about what happened, the S/He/IT that said it wants free speech limited because S/He/IT doesn’t like criticism from anyone.
    Not only is the idea of ‘sacred’ absolutely silly, but it is 1000X sillier to think that squiggly marks of ink on paper put there by a print company makes a book any more holey. And no one killed because the paper & ink were burnt, they were killed because the killers are absolutely BAT-SCHITE CRAZY insane and so brainwashed that they will follow the instructions of other absolutely BAT-SCHITE CRAZY insane imams.
    Yes Terry is an idiot. But the others are as said…absolutely BAT-SCHITE CRAZY insane.

  • Bob Carlson

    The mob proceeded to storm a U.N. compound

    According to Fareed Zakaria the mob description was inaccurate.

  • archimedez

    While burning the Qur’an is not the choice I would have made, I believe the pastor Jones is perfectly within his rights to burn his own copy of a mass-produced book. He and his associates put the Qur’an “on trial,” and after finding it guilty of promoting violence and hatred etc., they burned it as the means of “execution.”

    I recall PZ Meyers’ reported skewering, with a rusty nail, a Eucharist host (bread/wafer item supposedly part of Christ), along with some ripped out pages of a Qur’an and pages from Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and then tossing these items in the garbage with a banana peel and coffee grounds.

    “I hate having to defend this wannabe cult leader with delusions of grandeur who would, if he could, impose a theocracy scarcely distinguishable from the Taliban’s.” -Ebon

    From what I’ve read of his statements thus far, he supports the First Amendment and agrees with the separation of religion and state.

    He considers all non-Christian (and even some Christian*) beliefs to be evil, including Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, *Episcopalianism (due to their support for homosexuals), and humanism. He is against homosexuality, abortion, “fornication,” “adultery,” and pornography. As far as I’ve gathered thus far, he is your basic evangelical Christian fundamentalist.

    Apparently he and some of his followers use a kind of nonviolent “confrontational” or provocative approach in addressing these various issues.

    “I’ll grant that, very probably, the pastor staged the book-burning as a deliberate provocation, intending that something like this would happen.” -Ebon

    From what I’ve read, he did not intend this, though obviously he knew of the risk that some extremist Muslims might react this way. That said, lots of Qur’ans have now been either smoked, barbequed, skewered, shot, and so on, with these performances posted on Youtube and other such venues, and in most of the cases I’m aware of, there has been no actual violent retaliation.

    As I recall, back in Sept 2010, even though he didn’t go ahead with the burning at that time, there were nevertheless numerous killings in relation to it.

    Bob (#4), I’m not sure there’s clear information on that. According to this source these were not Taliban Afghans.

  • Eurekus

    Just a side comment. It’s sad to see what the human mind can become with a lack of scientific thought. This post is a lesson to us all.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Your analysis of this sorry episode pretty much coincides with every atheist commenter I’ve read so far, and coincides with my own. I also found myself defending the idiot Terry Jones with the same distaste.
    The afghan reaction is of course totally disproportionate and needs condemning unequivocally by everyone, including “moderate” Muslims who seem to have been strangely silent on the subject.
    Just as an aside, if I delete my digital copy of the Qur’an from my Kindle will it provoke a Muslim backlash?

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    It is a sign of the times that in a post rightly directed at condemning the Afghan violence and the UN official who blame-shifted so appallingly you nevertheless felt a need to include condemnation of Pastor Jones.

    That is deplorable, in itself, coming far too close to positing some sort of moral equivalence between what he did and what the Muslim crowds, incited by their religious leaders, have done.

    Which is not to say your condemnation was excessive or incorrect.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Re Archimedez’s comment 5.

    The Pastor’s position is the incoherent one that was more common before the sexual revolution of the 20th Century than it is now.

    Strict separationism rejects not just wholesale establishment but bits-and-pieces establishment.

    Today that rejection is understood by many separationists if not yet by judges and lawyers to encompass not only blue laws, God in the Pledge, and “In God We Trust” on the currency but religion-based sexual morality imposed on the rest of the community through law.

    But prior to the sexual revolution that began around the middle of the 20th Century much of the traditional Christian conception of sexual morality was embedded in laws all across this country that criminalized pornography, contraception, pretty much any sexual practice but the missionary position between man and wife with reproductive intent, divorce, and so on.

    And people at that time – even liberals – generally did not understand that such morals legislation was contrary to the First Amendment.


    Griswold and the liberal decisions that followed shredded the fealty of the law to the morality of the Christian churches by using not the First Amendment establishment clause but a Constitutional right to privacy based on 14th Amendment due process or, according to Douglas, found in the emanations and penumbras of various other constitutional guarantees.

    But nowadays when liberal pressure groups, lawyers, or others argue against restrictive sexual legislation the trend is to recognize and even claim volubly that these impositions of religion-based morality are contrary to the disestablishment clause of the First Amendment.

  • Syn

    As stated, you can’t pass laws that will stop these situations without violating the First Amendment. Of course we can’t censor our own speech as a result of threats. On the other hand, it is just plain bad manners to burn other people’s holy books, or even their favorite novels.
    Re comment #9 by Gaius: I think there is a big difference between sexual speech and sexual behavior. An act that can result in a baby can hardly be reduced to “speech”, which is why the Supreme Court went the “right to privacy” route. Pornography is problematic because in order to be filmed or photographed, the behavior had to occur. In the case of child pornography, it’s basically documentation of a crime. I don’t think that the First Amendment should be broadened to include acts that are not speech or closely related to it. (Burning flags or books would be included as speech, since the act primarily relates to something which is symbolic – nobody cares if you just burn a piece of cloth).

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    I think, perhaps, that ten years of village-to-village warfare, bombings, and occupation might have something to do with vicious attacks on United Nations complexes and other Westerners in the country. Maybe.

    Taking people’s claimed motives at face value is dubious.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    According to Fareed Zakaria the mob description was inaccurate.

    Bob Carlson, thanks for the link. To echo Kagerato above, these killings took place within a specific context and location. We didn’t see Muslims anywhere else go on killing rampages because of the Quran burning (though this doesn’t excuse acts of violence committed by Muslims elsewhere for other reasons).

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Syn at 10.

    I was referring to the establishment clause.

  • Syn

    Gaius at 13
    Sorry, I didn’t read your comment carefully enough.

  • Samuel

    “I think, perhaps, that ten years of village-to-village warfare, bombings, and occupation might have something to do with vicious attacks on United Nations complexes and other Westerners in the country. Maybe.”

    Why assume that? The people who were doing the rioting where clear this was their motive. While they may have a hidden motive, attacking the people who supply you aid isn’t the way it would be expressed. That and the killing of everyone they could get their hands on who wasn’t a Muslim (one of the UN workers saved himself by making that claim) heavily implies religious morives.

    “To echo Kagerato above, these killings took place within a specific context and location. We didn’t see Muslims anywhere else go on killing rampages because of the Quran burning (though this doesn’t excuse acts of violence committed by Muslims elsewhere for other reasons).”

    Or westerns aren’t available in most Islamic countries for ignorant hicks to kill (apologies to Southern hicks).

  • TK

    I have been waiting for days to see a post here about this, and I predicted the delicious irony of seeing a somewhat defense of Douchebag Jones. But I am troubled, and it reminds me of the response to the apologetic defense in the theodicy question which says, “It’s all for a mysterious divine purpose” which doesn’t answer the question “How does that alleviate the suffering of the victim?” To wit….

    “Mr Jones, you have every legal, ethical and high-minded philosophical right to do what you plan, because, if you are restrained, that means the thugs have won, and we can’t let that happen”

    “Okey doke, so if I do it, innocent humans who have never heard of me will be killed and beheaded and burned and stoned?”


    “Let’s do it!”

  • Blotto von Bismarck

    The biggest safeguards to the First Amendment seem to come from the most despised and despicable groups. You can thank the Klan for the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brandenburg v. Ohio; that law would have stopped Eugene V Debs from going to prison were it in effect during his time.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Was there a coherent point in there TK?

  • kennypo65

    It seems to me that these muslims revere their book more than their god. Which really isn’t astonishing. They revere their prophet more than Allah and they seem to revere violence most of all. So much for the claim that islam is a religion of peace. It is populated by violent reactionaries and psychopaths.

    I think that the best thing we can do is keep right on insulting islam at every opportunity. People who have no respect for human life deserve no respect. Piss on ‘em.

  • Samuel

    That isn’t entirely fair. You only have one theocracy in the Islamic world and everyone hates Iran.

    Of course, that is because the states are/were run by secular dictators but we will see exactly how liberal/reactionary the population is in the coming years when they aren’t under the boot of an oppressive regime.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    He may have foreseen how Afghans would react, but he didn’t control how they would react.

    This may be slightly OT, but I just want to point out that, as worded, this is precisely the same argument free-will fundies use to exculpate their god from responsibility for human “sins” and evil.

    I would make the distinction that the Florida pastor may have foreseen these Afghanis’ reaction as one of several possible reactions, but he couldn’t have foreseen it as the course of action they would definitely take. All of the possibilities available to them were actual options. The Quran-burner’s “foresight” has a statistical probability <1.0 – the Afghans really could have chosen to behave differently, even though some reactions may have been more probable than others. Contrast this with the case of a god that allegedly "foresees" with certainty the “choices” people make without actually controlling those “choices.” The probability of such a god’s foresight is always 1.0 – it’s going to happen, period. Therefore, any other alleged “options” are theoretical rather than actual; no one is actually making any “choices,” even though they believe they are. The statistical certainty of divine foresight is what renders meaningless any distinction between divine foresight and divine culpability for evil or sin.

    The reason I point this out is that atheists frequently argue against an all-knowing god who is nevertheless not culpable for human sin. We need to avoid slipping into similar arguments when they suit us.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    @the chaplain :

    You omitted the critical part where God is also omnipotent. Moral responsibility is always proportional to power.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    @ kagerato:
    Thanks for reminding me of the omnipotency bit. That’s surely not a minor point.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I think the omnipotence/omniscience concept is what makes all the difference. When he burned that Qur’an, Jones didn’t know how Afghans or other Muslims might have responded, even if he could have made a guess. Nor was he responsible for them holding those views in the first place.

    But if there was a Laplacean super-being who created human beings with the natures they had, and then provoked them in the certain and absolute knowledge of how they would react, that being would bear full responsibility for the result. Your moral responsibility is proportional to your degree of control over the outcome, and complete control means complete responsibility.