09.07.10

The Problem With Burning Qurans

The pastor who plans to burn Qurans is despicable. But the rush to condemn this maniac clouds legitimate free-speech debate.

Literally incendiary, and devilishly so, is the theater of a pastor who has declared his intention to set ablaze a pile of copies of the Quran on September 11. How this man, Terry Jones, came by the title “pastor” is beside the point: I, too, could set up my own church and confer upon myself any dignity I wish. The fact remains, however, that this man offers himself to the world as a Christian; his church, most inappropriately named in the context, is the Dove World Outreach Center. Judging by its clumsily assembled designation, and by the posturing of its pastor, it is clearly an outpost for benighted half-wits in search of publicity and in need of rescue (or, failing that, some form of ostracism).

Just when we are all seeking a modicum of freedom from religion, a bonfire of Qurans will push us all further into the swamp of religious-identity politics.

OK, I’ve got that off my chest. No one can be in any doubt that I find this bunch and its pastor loathsome. May our paths never cross, not even in Hell. I’ll say one thing, however: Will people who object to this pastor’s plans as offensive or incendiary feel placated if some pundit tells them that the man has a “right” (constitutional, no less) to torch his lot of Qurans? If not, they should feel some sympathy for those people who believe that the building of a mosque near ground zero, though constitutionally protected, is not a great idea—being, to them, offensive and perhaps incendiary.

Opponents of the opponents of the mosque (I won’t call them proponents of the mosque, as that would be less accurate in the case of many non-Muslims, this writer included) have centered their defense of the mosque squarely in the notion of “rights.” It has been, for many, a comforting defense philosophically. And yet that defense—accepting that someone may do something because he has a right to do it, accepting, in fact, a presumption in favor of the non-obstruction of a right-based act—places in a cultural bind those of us who find the pastor’s threat distasteful.

Of course, none of us would call on the police or the law to stop the pastor, in large measure because the law is powerless to intervene. After all, this is a country where the law is powerless to stop the burning of the American flag, no less sacred to many Americans than the Koran is to many Muslims. What we can deploy, however, is our aversion to the act, our disagreement with it; and the contradiction I am pointing to is that many who would object to the pastor’s conflagration on political or social or civilizational grounds, or for reasons of civic aesthetics, have not done so (or would not do so) in the case of the mosque near ground zero.

So let’s think on that point before we begin, as we must, to condemn the primitive, Know-Nothing pastor. The specter of a book-burning—to me it matters not so much that it is a Holy Book; it is a book, and that is enough—should produce in us a juddering apprehension that some within our largely sane society are becoming identical to our enemies, carbon copies of the people and culture that they would anathematize. How is Pastor Jones so different from an unenlightened Islamist who would rip to shreds a Bible? What worries me is that this transmogrification of ourselves into the shape of our enemies isn’t confined to dimwit-pastors: It has happened to Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House, former brain in a largely moribund Republican body…former man I once shared a cab with in Washington. He won’t stand for mosques near ground zero so long as there are no churches and synagogues in Mecca. Call it the pygmification of America. Call it the Wahhabization of Newt.

But back to the pastor: His theological insignificance notwithstanding, his threat is a most dangerous development. Already. General David Petraeus, commander of our troops in Afghanistan, has warned that his actions will inflame our Islamist-Jihadist enemies, thereby putting our soldiers at further risk in the field.

Our soldiers, of course, can take care of themselves, and give back with punitive interest that which they receive from their enemies. My point about the dangers in this development is this: Just when we are all seeking a modicum of freedom from religion, a bonfire of Qurans will push us all further into the swamp of religious-identity politics. The more you humiliate people for their religion (or race, or class, or caste, or language), the more they come to define themselves by the thing impugned.

The further tragedy is that the actions of this maniac pastor will bleed into the struggle over legitimate Western free-speech issues, such as the Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad. Burning holy books is not the same as satirizing them, any more than spitting in the face of Muslims is the same as critiquing the tenets of their religion. But what chance has nuance to survive in the face of this latest onslaught?

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)