I support and defend the Dove World Outreach Center’s recent decision to burn a copy of the Koran as an exercise of its members’ First Amendment right to free speech, and I do so without qualification.
On March 20, 2011, a few dozen members of the DWOC, a small fundamentalist Christian church in Gainesville, Florida, staged a “trial” of the Koran. Pastor Terry Jones, who had threatened to burn 200 copies of the Koran on the last anniversary of the September 11 attacks, presided as “judge” over the event.
An Imam and an ex-Muslim debated the book’s merits before a “jury” of twelve congregants who later pronounced the text guilty of five crimes against humanity, including the promotion of terrorism, death, torture, and rape worldwide. The penalty was determined via online poll. Voters chose burning over shredding, drowning, and a firing squad, so the congregation ignited the Koran and watched it burn in a barbecue pit at the church altar. The event was posted on the congregation’s website.
Although the burning received little international attention, beleaguered Afghan President Hamid Karzai—ever the opportunistic politician—publicized the event on March 24. He tagged it “a crime against a religion and the entire Muslim umma,” and called on the United Nations and America to bring the offenders to justice.
On April 1, three mullahs at the Blue Mosque incited thousands of Afghani protestors who then stormed the U.N. compound in Mazar-i-Sharif. Twelve people were killed, including seven U.N. workers—four Nepalese guards and three Europeans. On April 2, ten more were slain and dozens wounded in Kandahar. Angry demonstrations persisted across Afghanistan and, on April 4, an Afghani border policeman murdered two American soldiers in the northern province of Fayab.
The U.N.’s chief envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, blamed the violence on Pastor Jones. “I don’t think we should be blaming any Afghan,” he recommended. “We should be blaming the person… who burned the Koran. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from offending culture, religion, traditions.”
Back in the United States, President Obama added, “The desecration of any holy text, including the Koran, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry.” General Petraeus called the act “enormously intolerant.” Senators Harry Reid and John Kerry condemned the burning, while Lindsey Graham suggested the imposition of speech restrictions to protect the troops.
The following facts are not relevant to my defense: Both Islam and Christianity are irrational, dangerous, and mind-numbing ideologies. The events outlined above can teach us much about both religions. The DWOC is a small congregation. The U.S. government did not interfere with the DWOC’s act. There is no logical connection between solving a social problem and symbolic speech—for example, burning a book, wearing a black armband, desecrating a flag, or torching a brazier. Some American Muslims suffer religious discrimination. Worldwide, most politicians and popular press outlets either condemned or ignored the DWOC’s act. The burning does not assist the U.S. government in winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world. The Taliban may have benefited from the burning. Terry Jones now receives death threats regularly. The burning was one of many sine qua non (without which not) causes of lethal violence perpetrated by Afghani criminals. Western secular and Muslim cultures are fundamentally different.
Conversely, the following facts are supremely relevant to my defense: The First Amendment right of free speech implies neither a popularity contest nor the speaker’s responsibility for the irrational and unlawful reactions of others. The violence and slaughter in Afghanistan were proximately caused only by the brutality of Afghani criminals (and, thus, the burning was not tantamount to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater).
As soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed in 1913, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Free speech is perhaps the most precious of American values for two related but distinguishable reasons. First, it allows speakers to express themselves without threat of government interference, which thankfully hasn’t been an issue here.
Second, free speech is valuable to all people because it encourages would-be speakers to emerge from society’s shadows, cracks, and crevices and make public their opinions for our surveillance and judgment. Skokie, Illinois, was better served in 1977, for example, when the Ku Klux Klan chose a public march over yet another surreptitious, after-hours rant in the woods. Thus, to condemn Terry Jones and his church for speaking—no matter what value we assign to their message—is also to discourage political, intellectual, and moral sunlight.
American and U.N. officials in this case should have reassessed the means by which they chose to pursue their political and foreign policy objectives. And before they publicly passed judgment on the congregation’s speech, American politicians and popular press in particular should have stopped to reconsider the unique character of our constitutional tradition. Compliance with the First Amendment’s restrictions against government interference simply isn’t good enough.
Free societies don’t come cheap—nor can they be cheaply maintained. If nothing else, present conditions in the Middle and Near East should highlight that reality. The thought of enthusiastic support for unpopular free speech will make many feel uncomfortable. But such support is also the primary source of America’s political eclecticism and entrepreneurial vigor. It renders our democracy the ultimate economic, intellectual, and moral archetype for all freedom-hungry nations to emulate. Elsewhere, dissent and heresy is unthinkable. Here, it must be openly and passionately celebrated.
Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and columnist for both the Humanist and Skeptical Inquirer. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.