The Book Burning and the Massacre
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 04:07:59 PM EST
Last Fall, a wide range of world leaders from the Pope to General Petraeus to President Obama asked Jones to please not act on his threat to burn the Qu'ran. American military leaders said that among other things, such an act would endanger the troops. Ultimately, Jones stood down. But on March 20th he went ahead and staged a much less publicized kangaroo court in which he found the sacred text of Islam guilty of "crimes against humanity" -- including causing murder, rape, and terrorism. He sentenced the book to burning.  This enraged several Muslim clerics in Afghanistan, who led a mob in search of Americans against whom to retaliate. Unable to find any, they attacked a United Nations office and killed a number of UN staff (accounts vary.) A number of Afghan civilians were killed or wounded as well. Apparently, no Americans were killed in the fighting.

A video of the burning shows a kerosene-soaked Qu'ran  set ablaze in what appears to be a barbecue grill inside the church hall used for the "trial."

We can all hope that cooler heads will prevail all around. The Muslim Public Affairs Council for one, is clear in its denunciation of the atrocity in Afghanistan. But the episode is likely to reverberate though public life in surprising ways.

But first, let's review what has happened so far.

The New York Times reported

Mr. Ahmadzai, the police spokesman, said the demonstrators were angry about the burning of the Koran at the church of Pastor Terry Jones on Mar. 20. Mr. Jones had caused an international uproar by threatening to burn the Koran last year on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and demonstrations at the time led to deaths throughout Afghanistan, but on a small scale. Mr. Jones subsequently had publicly promised not to burn a Koran, but then presided over a mock trial and the burning of the Koran at his small fringe church in Gainesville, Fla.

After news of the attack, Mr. Jones, released a statement expressing no regret for the Koran burning. He called the attack on the compound "a very tragic and criminal action" and called on the United States and the United Nations to take action. "The time has come to hold Islam accountable," he said.

A prominent Afghan cleric, Mullavi Qyamudin Kashaf, acting chief of the Ulema Council of Afghanistan, called for American authorities to arrest and try Mr. Jones as a war criminal.

The Ulema Council recently met to discuss the Koran burning, he said. "We expressed our deep concerns about this act and we were expecting the violence that we are witnessing now," Mr. Kashaf said. "Unless they try him and give him the highest possible punishment, we will witness violence and protests not only in Afghanistan but in the entire world."

Last year, even though Mr. Jones called off his burning of the Koran, a subsequent wave of protests at NATO facilities in Afghanistan led to at least five deaths. In several of those incidents, Taliban agitators played a role, allegedly spreading rumors that the Koran burning had taken place. However, the Taliban have had little or no presence in Mazar-i-Sharif, one of the most peaceful places in Afghanistan.

But the outrage is not limited to Afghanistan.  Muslim and other groups around the world have condemned the Qu'ran burning, particularly in Pakistan, where one prominent cleric has demanded that Jones to be arrested and tried as a "terrorist;" another group had put a $2 million dollar bounty on his head; and another called for his execution.

For Americans, Jones's actions cut to the quick of the central ethos of our culture and our Constitutional framework, by pitting rights of free expression against freedom of religion -- while the world looks on and wonders what  is wrong with us.  

Book burning, such as Jones's stunt, is highlighted and condemned annually by the American Library Association and a number of allied publishing, scholarly, and First Amendment advocacy groups, during Banned Books Week.   While we celebrate the freedom to read in this way, we also recognize that the same First Amendment that gives us the right to read books, gives Terry Jones and his ilk the right to burn them. And even as we have the obligation to recognize and denounce his hateful and inflammatory actions and words, we also need to be careful not to call for government censorship of controversial speech.  This is part of the price of maintaining a society where we understand with the fiercest of urgency that free speech is a necessity, and not a luxury to be ho-hummed away in the face of controversies such as this.

But standards are different elsewhere.  Because governments in many places have a far greater say in determining what is allowable speech, people who live there find it hard to believe that the U.S. government has no hand in Jones' outrageous activities. (It is hard to explain for example, why governmental leaders spoke out last Fall, but failed to do so this time.) In other cases, more considered views such as that of the Pakistan Bar Council, the leading body of lawyers in the country, plans to complain to the United Nations. Meanwhile, high-level responses have varied. The presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan have condemned the burning, the president of the United States has condemned the attack on the UN office but took awhile to issue a statement that found a nuanced way of condemning both the burning and the massacre.

Demanding severest possible action against the culprits for committing this heinous act - that not only gravely offended the Muslims but could also fan terrorism and religious hatred - the committee condemned the inaction and indifference of the US government on the issue and its `deliberate avoidance of taking any action against the culprits'.

While from this distance, U.S. cooperation in any legal sanctions against  Jones would seem unlikely, the respect for the rights of Americans to hold and express controversial views will likely be severely strained. Will, for example, there be efforts to suppress domestic free speech, or internet commentary and publications, because it might endanger American personnel in other countries?

Past first amendment controversies while bearing certain similarities are actually very different. The recent case of Fred Phelps is perhaps the best example.  His ugly protests at the funerals of people who have died of AIDS, and American soldiers who died in combat, were the subject of laws designed to stop him -- but his activities no matter how heinous were  upheld  as constitutionally protected free speech by the Supreme Court.  

But last Fall, our top governmental leaders believed that there was a significant risk to American servicemen in Afghanistan and elsewhere if Jones went through with his planned bonfire of the Qu'rans -- and they publicly spoke out.  As we can see now, their concerns were not unfounded. As hateful as Phelps can be, to my knowledge no one has ever attacked Americans or UN staff overseas because of him.  Jones's mediagenic provocations already have.   Jones denies that he is in anyway responsible for inciting mob violence.  Rather, he says that the violence proves his point about Islam.  

And that's where it gets complicated, volatile, and dangerous.  Jones's web site includes pictures of the trial and the burning, and some key passages from the bogus trial.  So the provocation will continue, and the undisputed evidence of what occurred and why is available for all the world to see.  Although we have no way of knowing if there is a connection to the web site, there was a second day of rioting, deaths and injuries in Kandahar in response to the the burning, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The activities of Terry Jones and Fred Phelps certainly epitomize the aphorism that just because you have the right to do something, doesn't mean that it is the right thing to do.  How we navigate the ongoing Jones spectacle, will be a test of how well we embrace the sometimes paradoxical values of freedom of conscience and free speech.

on April 22nd, protesting in front of a mosque in Dearborn.  

Dearborn has a large Arab-American population, and the mosque is reportedly the largest in the U.S.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 07:38:52 PM EST

otherwise I'd go to protest against HIM.

by ArchaeoBob on Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 10:30:09 PM EST

Terry Jones has (1) given aid and comfort to the enemy (all those who wish a holy war between Christianity and Islam have an excuse due to his actions, which were broadcast by him over the internet) (2) endangered the lives of American troops, Americans and their allies (the deaths at the UN station are a direct consequence of his actions, as the assault the next day on a US base by suicide bombers. . .he has no right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater) Terry Jones fits the bill. He should be tried for treason, detained at either a superprison or Guantanamo. He must learn there are consequences for the choices he makes, as there are for all of us.

by okami on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 08:38:53 PM EST

Why is the cross in his church at the angle of the Swastika?  Regardless, I thought it was pretty tacky for people to try to stop him from doing it, or for the media to even bother covering it in the first place.  

Just because something isn't the right thing to do, doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.

He is correct in asserting that the violence in the Middle East over his actions does more to enforce the view of Islam as irrationally violent.

No Presidents urged Salman Rushdie not to write The Satanic Verses, and the UK Police protect him to this day.  Granted, there is a quality of art in Rushdie's work wholly lacking in Jones' actions, but the principle is the same.

by OldChaosoftheSun on Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 04:43:05 PM EST

Ain't nobody else responsible for his acts of provocation.

He knew full well what the responses might be like, and he went ahead and did it anyway.  Words, like deeds, have consequences, and with a few exceptions, we are all responsible for what we do and say.

Jones does not get a pass in that regard. Whatever he may believe, hi is also a hate-filled provocateur and a crass opportunist. The internet can make even obscure figures like Jones international sensations, and that is a good bit of what happened, and seems likely to continue to happen.

It is important that our religious and political leaders speak out about this, hopefully providing some wisdom in addition to the usual boilerplate.  

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 05:12:44 PM EST

Frederick, I think it goes further than Jones being responsible for the things he says and does.

I think he is morally responsible for the harm his actions and words caused for others.  That is something the dominionists (and fundamentalists and others) would like to get away from... the responsibility for the harm done to others.

I don't like the response to his burning the Koran one tiny bit, and the so-called "protesters" too have responsibility for the harm they caused to their victims.  They murdered innocent people who were there to help, for God's sake!!!!  Just because they were angry over Jones' action (I understand about the politics and misunderstanding about our government and societal structure - if anything, this is a call for more exposure to difference and for travel).

Innocent people died because of an act of stupidity and hatred, and that is what is really wrong.  It's ironic to me that Jones AND the "protesters" equally share responsibility in this tragedy.   That is what I think.

Maybe emphasizing that the importance of respecting the Other and showing respect for different religions doesn't mean that you have to agree with them or accept their tenets, will help to lead a way out of this mess.  I think that both "sides" (both guilty parties) would be surprised that I see a lot of parallels between them.  The insistence on public sectarian prayers that we encounter from the dominionists and fundamentalists - compared to the demand that we not say anything negative about Islam, the Koran, or Mohammad.  Another comparison between the guilty parties is a desire for enactment of religious law over the populace ("Bible-based" law vs Sharia law).  On both sides we have people stirring up trouble and trying to increase the polarity in society.

It makes things really hard for the rest of us.

A live and let live attitude is best, as long as people aren't being hurt.

My (sad and angered) two cents worth...

by ArchaeoBob on Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 05:52:10 PM EST

for ones words and actions, certainly includes the idea of being "morally responsible for the harm his actions and words caused for others" by any reasonable definition of the term.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 05:59:35 PM EST
The dominionist teachings I got (and even got to a degree from people in the steeplejacked church we used to attend) on this topic was that you were responsible for what happened to you (especially as related to your words and actions), but not for how they affected others.

The other people (and maybe Jesus according to some ways of thinking) are responsible for everything that happens to them.  If they aren't magically cured or fixed or whatever when they pray, then they "lacked faith" or "had hidden sin in their life" - it's not your responsibility.  You're only responsible for you (and paying your tithes and supporting your preacher and ...).

A lot of very evil people were getting away with things they never should have back when I was Assemblies of God, because of these teachings.

I don't always think in terms of the taking responsibility as you put it, because that's not the way I heard it for a long time (and still rarely hear it in that context).  

Thanks, because you brought me up short and made me realize just how much influence they still have in my thoughts (and as you know, I'd walked over 28 years ago, and left the steeplejacked churches in 2004).

I rather think that Jones thinks his "faith" makes everything OK, based upon that thinking.

by ArchaeoBob on Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 07:26:32 PM EST

...seems to me the Islamic Clerics that rallied mobs into violent frenzies are morally responsible.  I have more love for Dominionism than Sharia, though I think they're just two sides of the same coin.  Why are these U.N. Bases not better protected against assault?

by OldChaosoftheSun on Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 09:53:29 PM EST
ALSO morally responsible.

Just as the preachers have equal responsibility when their preaching incites violence.

by ArchaeoBob on Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 10:22:52 PM EST
Parent this country they don't.  Otherwise we could arrest Bill Reilly for the murder of George Tiller.

by OldChaosoftheSun on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 07:09:36 AM EST

by OldChaosoftheSun on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 07:10:04 AM EST

...Rushdie knew as well what the response would be, to date, far more have been killed as a result of his novel than , which is, albeit, not open hate, but with deep artistic merit.  However, I can still buy the book in Barnes and Noble.  

The moment we censor speech because it attacks, whether from a perspective of careful artistry, or from blind, ignorant hatred, a religion which may be provoked to violence is the moment we legitimize terrorism as a method of enforcing one's views.

by OldChaosoftheSun on Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 05:26:48 PM EST

-- at least not yet. And certainly not me, as any fair reading of this essay can see.  

Rather, I am raising the specter of possible censorship and am suggesting that we need to consider what we will do if it comes up.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 05:55:29 PM EST

...I've no like for Terry Jones at all, the guy should be irrelevant to the media.  It would likely be best if we had not heard of him in the first place, but the media decided to make a figure out of his idiocy.

by OldChaosoftheSun on Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 05:29:23 PM EST

The angled cross is sometimes used to represent the cross as Jesus bore it through the streets of Jerusalem. It is more commonly seen as part of a depiction of the whole scene, with Jesus bowed beneath the weight of the cross. Since this is a Baptist church, they probably wouldn't permit that kind of iconography, so they just have the cross without Jesus.

As for the swastika, or broken cross, it was a perfectly good Christian symbol until the Nazis perverted it. It is sometimes seen on 19th century Amish quilts, among other representations.

by MLouise on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 09:02:29 AM EST

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