Is Pastor Jones the new Salman Rushdie?
During a recent episode of the freethinker podcast Pod Delusion, Sam Harris offered what was his take on Pastor Jones and the burning of the Qur’an (at around the 11.40 mark). He said:
The peevishness and the combustibility of the Muslim community is so obscene on this point that we have to protect the Qur’an burners … I’m not in favour of burning Qur’ans, I’m not in favour of burning any books, no matter how bad they are, but the people who are bruning Qur’ans are making a point, and the point … should be well taken, to say that you can burn any book in the world without fear of reprisal except for this book – and that’s ridiculous and unsustainable and we should not be held hostage by the threat of this kind of reaction.
Everything [Pastor Jones] says on this subject is what I’d say on this subject – he’s diagnosing the problem quite accurately … the same people who are condemning him are the same people who condemned Salman Rushdie when he published The Satanic Verses or who condemned Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a bigot … .
According to Harris, Jones is simply the author of a thought experiment which says if we burn this book the whole world will go up in flames – which is sinister, but is it enough to arrest him for? And further, is it enough to blame him personally for the protests by certain Muslims in Afghanistan?
But isn’t what Jones doing a hate crime? After all it would not appear he is simply making a calculated thought experiment – he is saying Islam is evil, and this is inflammatory. Addressing a rally, he called non-supportive Christians “cowards” and explained:
“the Christians … should have said ‘okay, we’re not really for the burning, but what he’s saying [that] Islam is evil, Sharia Law is wrong, radical Islam is wrong,’ they should have stood with us but they just didn’t have any guts.”
Salman Rushdie’s work was satire, not a judgement on whether Islam was evil – after all, would one who thought Islam evil bother arguing that Islam needs a reform? Only, I suppose, if they’ve no idea what they’re talking about – which I’m certain is not true of Rushdie (though I’d question his assertion).
The obvious next question is: should a person be criminalised for an opinion? The act of burning a book is in bad taste, and even if that act is likely to motivate unpeaceful demonstrations, can we really hold Jones responsible for that, in the same way as whether Rushdie was responsible for the 15 Khordad Foundation who offered a reward of $US1 million or 200 million rials for his murder?
At first I want to say any speech should not be a crime, but to be sure hate is a problem that has wide societal problems, the solution to which is unsure.
With Rushdie, the punishment was so over the top it almost seems to have come from a parallel universe. But Pastor Jones’ wingnuttery makes it almost impossible to sympathise with him under any circumstances – having said that, this is not how the law operates, and we cannot judge a person’s actions by their otherwise rhetorical stupidity. On reflection burning a Qur’an should be frowned upon, but to the extent where it is a criminal offence, I worry about.
As for whether he is the new Salman Rushdie? Definitely not!