Home > General Politics > Is Pastor Jones the new Salman Rushdie?

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!

  1. tim f
    April 28, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    It should be opposed; he should be opposed; he should not be jailed.

  2. April 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Agreed – and we are thus at odds with the legal system in this country. But can we yet say our legal system is stood opposed to free speech?

  3. April 28, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Salman Rushdie is an intelligent, imaginative writer with a sense of empathy and an enquiring mind who didn’t set out to deliberately offend. Pastor Jones is an ignorant bigot who did. Both, however, have an equal right to self-expression and free speech.

    Many people seem to think that Jones’ actions are so hurtful that curtailing his freedom of expression is the only way of protecting people. The trouble is that somewhere along the line, we mixed up the affronts to books and to religious and clerical authority with verbal or actual attacks on human beings and their dignity.

    Had Jones been directly advocating violence or inciting hatred against individual people, a group of people or an ethnic group, there would be a good case for curbing his “hate speech.” We are what we are, every one of us, black, white, gay, straight, female, male, disabled, whatever, and being attacked and vilified for just being yourself, for merely existing, is clearly wrong.

    That’s not what Jones was doing, though. He was burning a book. He thinks that the book in question is evil and is expressing his contempt for it by setting fire to it. A bunch of other people think that the said book is the greatest thing ever to have happened to humanity, bar nothing, and they’re hacked off about it. But when all’s said and done, the thing he’s attacking is an object, a symbol. I might reasonably get a bit upset if somebody mocked, denounced or even destroyed something I held dear, but as long as it was just a thing, not a human being, it would be up to me to rise above it and get over it (I’m assuming, for the sake of argument, that where something is being destroyed it belongs to the destroyer – if you start setting fire to somebody else’s stuff, the normal laws covering property damage should apply).

    You might argue that Jones destroyed a book, but his real intention was to offend, vilify and upset people, specifically Muslims, with a xenophobic or racist intent. Well, I can’t read what passes for his mind, so I’m content to judge him on his actual actions and words. If he started telling people to go out and attack Muslims, or to hate blacks or gays, or any other group, I’d be happy to see him in court specifically for inciting hatred against people.

    Human beings deserve protection. Ideas – whether they are theories about the nature of reality, or the existence of the supernatural, or economics, or political ideology or codes of ethics – all of these are fair game to be questioned, debated, mocked, torn apart, or denounced. If they’re not, then human beings become the slaves of unbending authoritarian dogmas (which can be of a religious or secular nature) and the underlying threat of violence that curbs dissent. Burning a book is a dumb way to debate what’s in it. But it isn’t, under any circumstances, an excuse for violence and intimidation, still less for murder.

    • April 28, 2011 at 7:16 pm

      That was a well put argument, and I only wish I had something equal in size to reply, but I’ve only one thing to say to that – by criminalising the burning of a book we put that book in the same league as a human. And yet, in not criminalising it, our legal system makes a value judgement on the authenticity of the book (distinct from those to whom the Qur’an is the message of God. That’s the dilemma, I know which side I’m on, but it’s a dilemma none the less.

  4. April 28, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    “The trouble is that somewhere along the line, we mixed up the affronts to books and to religious and clerical authority with verbal or actual attacks on human beings and their dignity.”

    This is either disingenuous or incredibly obtuse, and arguments along these lines indicate just how de-sensitised we have become to outright barbarism in thought and word in the last decade or so. To burn a Quran may or may not constitute an act defensible as free expression. But it is not merely an affront to religious and clerical authority (it cannot be an affront to the book, since a book has no will). It is a calculated insult to everyone who considers the book sacred. To call Islam ‘evil’ is a verbal attack on every believer. Since such arguments depend on and reinforce cultural essentialism, their attacks on ‘Islam’ (which bears roughly the same relationship to actually existing Islam as ‘the Jew’ of antisemitic discourse does to actually existing Jews) necessarily implicate all believing Muslims. To feign innocence as to his motives, being unable to read Jones’ mind etc., is an evasion. Jones is hate mongering. He is spewing ignorant, essentialist, bigoted rubbish about Islam that is in essence no different to the kind of ignorant, essentialist, bigoted rubbish that some Christian Rightists spew about Judaism.

    Incidentally, Sam Harris is absolutely the same as Pastor Jones in his calculatedly indiscriminate attacks on Islam. Harris is insistent, for example, that “‘Muslim extremism’ is not extreme among Muslims”. He avers that the basic thrust of Islam was to “convert, subjugate, or kill unbelievers; kill apostates; and conquer the world”, and that those “who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.” It is not surprising at all that he defends Jones, and that he prefaces his remarks with an expression of contempt and derision for “the Muslim community” – how dare they be offended by a racist provocation, who *do* they think they are, etc etc? The only surprise is that this man, a dangerous oblocutor of an oppressed religious minority and apologist for torture in the context of the “war on terror” as “collateral damage”, is still taken seriously by a few liberal secularists.

    • April 29, 2011 at 12:29 am

      I have to agree with Richard here, I was shocked to read in his trite book The End of Faith that torture be justified in a utilitarian fashion during the war on terror in a way that’d please the “liberal” contingent of New, illiberal, Atheists. I’m no more surprised he’s given support to Pastor Jones than David Attenborough is supportive of neo-Malthusianism.

  5. May 2, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    I’ve been away, so this is a bit late, but there are a couple of comments here I’d like to respond to.

    Richard – so what if calling Islam ‘evil’ is a verbal attack on every believer? Attacks on the adherents of other faiths – and not just verbal ones – have been standard operating procedure for the big-league religions ever since Elijah got into a ruck with the prophets of Baal, and probably for many centuries before that. There have been a few honourable exceptions – Sikhism and Buddhism spring to mind – but fanatical followers of the major faiths have been routinely denouncing, oppressing and murdering infidels, heretics, apostates and so on for centuries.

    In recent years there’s been some progress and mainstream religion has, at least in liberal, secular societies, been stripped of much its power to intimidate. Most mainstream “faith” leaders now at least pay lip service to the admirable secular, humanist values of tolerance and non-violent dialogue. On the fringes a few relics of old-time religion, like Jones, denounce other faiths as evil. Clerics on the extremist fringes of Islam routinely denounce Christianity and Judaism in the same terms.

    As far as I’m concerned, the fanatics on both sides can trade insults until the cows come home, so long as they agree to refrain from violence and intimidation and allow the peaceable majority of religionists and secularists freedom to peacefully dispute or ignore their ranting and just get on with their lives. If this constitutes ‘desensitising people to outright barbarism’ then I’m the Queen of Romania.

    Carl – just for the record, I don’t believe that torture is justified in a “utilitarian fashion” to further the war on terror. I don’t believe that torture is justified at all – no ifs, no buts, no exceptions. On this point, I disagree with Sam Harris every bit as strongly as I disagree with the apologists for murder in the name of offended “faith.”

    • May 3, 2011 at 5:29 pm

      That’s fine, but I didn’t say you did justify torture in an utilitarian way – the dilemma is whether we put a book on par with a human.

  6. May 3, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    Carl – no problem, but as I share a lack of religious belief with Sam Harris (I’m not sure whether my atheism – or technically agnosticism – is “new”), I thought it was a good idea to make it clear that I don’t share his other views, especially ones that endorse torture. Just in case anybody might make the culturally essentialist mistake that all non-believers follow one monolithic party line…

    • May 3, 2011 at 7:52 pm

      Oh I understand now. Harris’ justification for torture is very much a Roman precept (“do evil that good may result”), but do you think the problem is not that sacrificing one life to save, say, 1000 is the correct thing to do, but rather the 1000 people are abstract, whereas the recipient of torture is right there in front of you, making it harder for an individual to carry out “evil”.

      In short, is the problem of torture in this context one of over-proximity, not morality?

  7. May 4, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    ‘is the problem of torture in this context one of over-proximity, or morality?’

    I can’t demolish the argument that proximity plays a role in a world where governments flinch from torturing a single pitiless bomb-maker with no scruples about killing innocents, then accept the unfortunate inevitability of large groups of wholly innocent civilians accidentally dying in far-off places whenever a drone or smart bomb misses its mark in the latest humanitarian intervention. The fact that torture, arguably, causes less harm than some other things that governments either do, or permit to happen, isn’t, in my opinion, sufficient argument for allowing torture.

    I oppose torture because I wouldn’t want anyone torturing me and I don’t want it doing to other people in my name.I think that a world where international law and norms of humane, behaviour stop many governments from torturing people is better than one in which torture is a ubiquitous fact. The fact that worse things are allowed to happen isn’t, in my view, a moral argument for allowing torture. If anybody says ‘you oppose torture, but what about x?’ my response would be, ‘fine, let’s talk about x’.

    What about-ery doesn’t do it for me, so what about the utilitarian “torturing one to save 1,000” argument? It’s topical, with George W claiming that, although he couldn’t finish the job, they only caught Osama in the end because ‘ol George had the cojones to let them waterboard prisoners until they talked. Of course, it’s impossible for outsiders to refute his claim, as the source of the intelligence is classified, but I’m sceptical. Governments have multiple sources of intelligence. Coercion by torture would be another tool, but security services would hardly be blind without it. By definition, by the time you’re in a position to torture somebody, you already have some information, or you wouldn’t have seized that person in the first place (unless you’ve picked them up on the basis of faulty intelligence, in which case, congratulations, you’re now tormenting an innocent bystander who can’t tell you what you want to know).

    I’m no John Le Carre, but I doubt whether the moral philosophy textbook / random episode of 24 binary alternative of either torturing the bad guy or letting the innocent perish happens very often in the real world. There are plenty of people who doubt whther torture is even effective, including people who’ve actually been resposible for interrogating prisoners (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A2302-2005Jan11.html ). The case that torture doesn’t work isn’t completely watertight, but it’s compelling enough to put the onus on the pro-torturers to prove that it is.

    In any case, at the risk of invoking Gowin’s Law, when the Westen allies were faced with Nazi Germany, a far more formidable opponent than Al-Quada, they won the intelligence war by breaking Enigma and running double agents, rather than by sinking to the level of the Gestapo. If nations like ours didn’t need to normalize torture when faced with an existential threat on that scale, how come the apologists for torture think we need it so badly in 2011?

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