Burning Korans and Building Mosques: America’s Blasphemy Laws

Blasphemy laws are instituted when members of a religious group decide that their belief system should be unassailable, immune from any real or perceived criticism, and protected from any disrespect or display of dissent.  As with any other laws, they are enforced through thethreat of punishment or dire consequences.

During the past few weeks, America’s commitment to freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion, has been challenged by a Pastor’s announced plan to burn several copies of the Koran and a developer’s desire to build an Islamic Community center.  Elements within the global Islamic community threatened violence against Americans, American troops, and American interests, if Pastor Terry Jones, an American citizen planning to carry out an action on American soil, proceeded with the exercising of his constitutionally protected rights. Elements within American society have campaigned, demonstrated, and issued ominous warnings of potential future actions, if the legal owners of property in Manhattan, also American citizens planning to exercise their constitutionally protected rights on American soil, proceed with their approved plans to build their Islamic center.

“If you upset us, we’ll hurt you. We will terrorize you and cause you harm.” This is the message that seemed to be coming from elements within Afghanistan, Indonesia, and various other groups within the Islamic world, as well as form Christian Nationalists within America. It’s a threat of violence as punishment for non-violence, and it’s working. Americans are scared, and they’re willing to trade their freedoms for security.

“He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” – Benjamin Franklin

Much has been said about the dichotomy between having the right to do something, and whether or not it is right to do it. While the right to do something is clearly defined in the Constitution, the question of whether or not something is ‘right’ to do has been defined as how offensive it may be, or how many people consider it offensive. This is an error. The question of whether or not a group of people decide that a thing is offensive cannot be a consideration when establishing whether or not someone has the right to do that thing.

If freedom of speech, and freedom of expression, were not understood to be potentially offensive, we would not have required a constitutional guarantee to protect them. For every opinion expressed, there is someone who will disagree; and for every opinion expressed strongly, there is someone who will strongly disagree. The vehemence or popularity of the opposition should be of no concern. That disagreement does not give one, or many, the right to silence the other; not when they have the equal right to express their difference, or opposition, in the same non-violent manner.

“Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense. True irreverence is disrespect for another man’s god.” – Mark Twain

From the beginning of the Dove World Outreach Center episode in Gainesville, Florida, everyone has been concentrating on how to stop the Koran burning from happening. While recognizing that Terry Jones has the right to burn the Korans, the argument has been repeatedly expressed that it’s not right for him to do it. Representatives from other Christian churches and organizations, leaders and clergy from other religions, United States Government officials, and the mainstream media, have been unanimous in their objection to the Pastor’s actions and their desire to see these proposed actions, and therefore the threatened consequences of this act of blasphemy, cancelled. Disrespect for a religious text and the resulting danger to Americans, and American troops, has been the consistently cited reasons.

Likewise, the threat of protest, inflamed tensions, and potential acts of terrorism against the proposed mosque at 51 Park street in Manhattan, has developed into a campaign to convince the developers to voluntarily relinquish their Constitutionally protected rights. Rather than stand united with the force of a government sworn to uphold and protect the Constitutional rights of it’s citizens, many have opted for a position of appeasement requiring the representatives of a minority to forgo their rights in order to cater to the bigotry and bias of members of the majority.

Many conservative politicians, and pundits, including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, have suggested that both the Koran burning as well as the development of the Islamic Center should be cancelled simply due to opposition. The fact that both of them share in the Islamophobic sentiments that are sweeping the nation, openly support fundamentalist Christian Nationalism, and construct their platforms out of the fears, biases, and bigotry of their audience and political base, provides them with strong motivation to pursue this anti-Constitutional agenda. They draw a false equivalency between the two situations, equating an overt action that has as its sole purpose to send a message with the building of a facility that others have chosen to interpret as an offensive message. The only similarity is that, in either case, their offense is of no import.

A De facto blasphemy law has been applied to Americans, with clearly proscribed consequences and threats of punishment, and America seems to be considering capitulation.  Whether it be in response to the burning of Korans or the building of a mosque; groups of individuals, whether they be proponents of or protesters against a certain religion, have stated that if an American offends their religion, or if a religion offends their sensibilities, they will retaliate by causing America, and/or Americans, harm. Recognizing that the act was not considered ‘nice’, or ‘sensitive,’ has allowed Americans to accept this dictated law on its citizens without having to acknowledge the truth of their own fear, and willingness to surrender their rights to that fear.

The act of burning books is universally recognized as reprehensible. Images of tyranny and fascist control, and memories of some of human-kinds darkest hours immediately come to mind. Other than simply being distasteful to many, it is an act that can have two very clear messages. If done on a large scale, it is an act of censorship. If done on a smaller scale, it is a message of distaste and disrespect. Pastor Jones, and his approximately fifty followers, were not threatening an act of censorship that would have violated the rights of others. Pastor Jones was planning an act of disrespect. He was planning to send a message. As distasteful as many may consider it, he was simply planning to exercise his freedom of expression.

Why was responsibility for the reaction to this planned event levied against Terry Jones rather than those reacting? None of his actions committed any violence or had any real effect on anyone in Afghanistan, Indonesia, or anywhere else. The books he was planning to burn did not belong to them, they belonged to Terry Jones and his congregation. Why should he and his congregation be held accountable for violating the rules of a religion to which they do not adhere? Why should anyone be required to adhere to the rules and dictates of a religion to which they do not belong?

To say that the surrendering of these rights is a responsibility that we all have in order to be part of civil society is incorrect. To consider such actions morally superior, defining them as taking the high road for the greater good, is equally erroneous. An honest admission would include these excuses as nothing more than self-flattering disguises of the fear of the threatened consequences. The threat of an uncivil reaction does not define the action itself as uncivil. An action cannot be defined by the reaction of others. Civil society cannot be defined by those who threaten others with uncivil action. Civil society is not achieved by pursuing policies of appeasement to the more base aspects of our human nature, or to the more violent and reactive elements within society.

We cannot let religious leaders dictate what is the acceptable way for society to regard their religious icons and artifacts. Interviews with religious leaders on television demonstrated a unanimous opinion that anything sacrilegious is wrong and therefore should be subject to government intervention. This is like asking oil company representatives to draft legislation regarding environmental regulations for drilling operations. That would be unimaginable stupid, right?

The claim that the burning of a Koran is like yelling fire in a crowded theatre is also a gross misrepresentation. It may be like cheering for the Washington Redskins at a Dallas Cowboys home game, but it certainly is not like yelling fire in a crowded theatre. Yelling fire in a crowded theatre causes people to face the choice of exit or perish. The danger is that yelling fire would create a stampede that would cause people simply trying to save their own lives to be harmed, or to cause harm to others without any intention of doing so. Religious people are not put in a situation even remotely similar when faced with a Bible or Koran burning, or any other comments or actions they find offensive. They are in no danger, nor have they been threatened of any danger.

When demonstrations started in Indonesia, the President of that country, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, called President Obama and requested that he intervene and stop the planned burning of the Korans in Gainesville, Florida. American and NATO embassies were threatened by angry mobs. Rather than hold the protesters in his own country accountable for their violent and destructive actions, the chosen strategy was to ask the President of the United States to require one of his citizens to adhere to Islamic law. No one asked what President Yudhoyono did, or said, to have his citizens take responsibility for their own reaction.

Fortunately, President Obama’s public statement gave no indication that any such action in violation of the constitution would ever be considered. The fact that federal agents paid a visit to Mr. Jones may betray another reality, but there was no outward indication of any such official government intervention. If there was, America is in even greater danger. The capitulation was an act of the American people. Fear of reprisal has been a constant theme throughout the national discussion.

General Petraeus, commander of American forces in Afghanistan, made an official request that Pastor Jones not go through with his planned action. The reaction of the Afghan people was defined as the Pastor’s responsibility. The choice of the Afghan people to respond violently, to a non-violent action, was not defined as their responsibility, but his. On Saturday, September 11, 2010, in Afghanistan, shops and police check points were set on fire. Eleven individuals were reported injured in the violent demonstrations. No Korans had been burned. The clear threat is that, had he actually gone through with burning the Korans, the violence would certainly escalated even further. A line was drawn in the sand and America backed down.

There was no mention of any communication with President Karzai of Afghanistan asking him to address his people; nor was there any news that he did so of his own accord. The responsibility for any potential violent reaction was put squarely on the shoulders of a man exercising the very right to freedom of expression, and freedom of speech, that General Petraeus is sworn to uphold, and yet chose to surrender.

After nine years in the country, are there no relations established with local leaders? Is there no means of communicating with the people of Afghanistan? Is the military not sophisticated enough to become part of the media and Internet presence that seems to be driving the reaction in Afghanistan?

This is not acceptable. The extension of this principle, that something cannot be expressed or communicated because of the upset and reaction that it may cause, is the very antithesis of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. General Petraeus’ duty is to protect these rights, not limit them, abdicate them, or surrender them to a mob of religious fundamentalists.

The principle that offence trumps the right of expression is the foundation of the censorship that allows blasphemy laws. The fact that the restriction is imposed by society on itself, because of a sense of fear, creates an even greater chance that such an injustice may take hold and become institutionalized.

Any such action against the developers of the Islamic Cultural Center in Manhattan would be an even more egregious violation. The offense attributed to these individuals has been the result of propaganda, misinformation, and conclusions arrived at through allegations of nefarious intentions, xenophobic stereotyping, and cultural illiteracy. These people are building a place of worship on private property. End of story. Everything else is the result of ignorance, bigotry, and opportunistic demagoguery.

If those planning on building the mosque at Park 51 are stopped, America has not only succumbed to an Islamic Blasphemy law, but to an American Christian Nationalist Blasphemy law as well.

“Freedomis never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” – Ronald Reagan

Should liberty be diluted in the name of security? Benjamin Franklin admonishes such cowardice.

Should liberty be fearful, or demure? The spirit of Mark Twain’s unfettered boldness suggests otherwise.

Should Americans remain complacent while religious fundamentalist of different creeds are permitted to erode their Constitutional rights and freedoms? Ronald Reagan provided an excellent response to that concern.

The freedoms of speech, of expression, and of and from religion, are too important to surrender in the face of intimidation and threats; whether foreign or domestic. America’s freedoms are being threatened by both internal and external forces exploiting the unwarranted legitimacy they receive through religious profession. The next time someone wants to burn a Koran, or a Bible, unless it belongs to you, debate them, berate them, or ignore them; but you can’t stop them. The next time developers wish to proceed with the construction of a legally approved center for study, worship, or fellowship, on private property, remember that their rights supersede your sense of offense, be it perceived, or manufactured.

If any one is going to secure their rights as an American citizen, we must all stand firmly for the rights of all American citizens.


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