Everyone is angry with Terry Jones, the Qur’an-burning Florida pastor. Barack Obama issued a written statement saying that “the desecration of any holy text, including the Qur’an, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry.” In Afghanistan, General David Petraeus and NATO representative Mark Sedwill said they “hope the Afghan people understand that the actions of a small number of individuals, who have been extremely disrespectful to the holy Qur’an, are not representative of any of the countries of the international community who are in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people.”
The United Nations got into the act, too. “The recent burning of a copy of the Quran in the United States and similar actions anywhere else contradict the efforts of the United Nations to promote tolerance, intercultural understanding and mutual respect between cultures and religions,” thundered UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Time Magazine’s Joe Klein even claimed that “Jones’s act was murderous as any suicide bomber’s,” since Muslims enraged by the burning of the Qur’an in Florida have murdered about 20 people in Afghanistan and five in Pakistan.
Is that Jones’s fault? Many, many in the West agree with Klein that it is. Guardian editor Matt Seaton explained that Jones was to blame because his Qur’an-burning was “done knowingly involving reckless endangerment, and quite possibly wishing for this kind of bad result.” Bill O’Reilly even claimed that Jones had “blood on his hands.”
To that, Jones’s response was succinct: “We reject Mr. O’Reilly’s statement. The responsibility should be laid upon the people who committed the acts.” O’Reilly and the rest were assuming that the Muslims who were rioting and killing over the burning of a book half a world away had no control over their reactions, and thus could not be held accountable for them: they were demonstrating their belief that it was the West’s responsibility to make sure the Islamic world behaves in a civilized manner. Muslims had no such responsibility.
Instead of all this morally myopic posturing, Obama, Petraeus, Ban Ki-moon and the mainstream media ought to be standing up for freedom of speech. Speech that is inoffensive needs no protection, and those in power can all too easily use “hate speech” codes to restrict speech they find politically inconvenient or challenging. Obama, O’Reilly and the rest should have said: ”While I disapprove of the burning of the Qur’an, in America we believe that freedom of expression is a fundamental bulwark against tyranny and the hallmark of a truly free society, and it requires us to put up with things we don’t like without responding with violence.”
Jones’s Qur’an-burning could have been a teaching moment for the West, showing why free societies are preferable to Sharia states. But instead, Obama and the media are effectively reinforcing the principle that violent intimidation works: they knew that somewhere in the world Muslims were going to become violent because of the burned Qur’an, and instead of telling them to act like civilized people, they are demanding that free people change the way they behave to try to prevent another Islamic murderous spree. That’s just what Afghan President Hamid Karzai is demanding: he wants the U.S. to restrict the freedom of speech to protect the Qur’an: “The American Congress and Senate must condemn this in clear words, show their stance, and prevent such incidents from happening again.”
The world’s leaders and opinion-shapers can and should be telling these rioting Afghans and Pakistanis, and those who are defending them, to realize that if someone burns a Qur’an in Florida, it doesn’t harm them, or the Qur’an, or Allah, or Muhammad. He could and should tell them that to respond with irrational violence against people who are not involved with the burning (or even against the people who are involved with it) is just savagery.
People like Obama and Seaton have forgotten, if they ever knew, that one’s response to someone else’s provocative action is entirely one’s own responsibility. If you do something that offends me, I am under no obligation to kill you, or to run to the United Nations to try to get laws passed that will silence you. I am free to ignore you, or laugh at you, or to respond with charity, or any number of reactions.
Everyone in the world is so busy condemning Terry Jones that they have forgotten about freedom of expression, and why it is so important to reinforce even when we find the expression detestable—indeed, especially in such cases. And so, if we continue down this path, one thing is certain: That which is not understood or valued will not be protected, and so it will be lost.
Those who censor themselves today to keep from offending Muslims who are offended all too easily may wish in the not-too-distant future that they had stood up more robustly for the freedom of speech when it was threatened. But by then, it could easily be too late.