Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Koran Burning, Apologies, Confrontation and Free Speech

In this age of Islamic violence, our right to free speech is undergoing reconsideration. George Stephanopoulos lamented the fact that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer thought that Koran burning might be added as an exception to free speech – like crying fire in a crowded theatre:

  • But Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer told me on “GMA” that he’s not prepared to conclude that — in the internet age — the First Amendment condones Koran burning. 
However, the court has protected free speech in the past, even when offensive and encouraged criminal behavior, according to Charles Lane of the Washington Post:

  • Over time, the court developed today's standard, which allows even the advocacy of illegal conduct unless it is both intended, and likely, to incite "imminent lawless action." Indeed, in 1949 the court allowed a Chicago demagogue to make a racist speech in a packed theater, even though police said it would cause an opposing crowd outside to riot: "A function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute," the court opined. "It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger." And, of course, in 1989 the court upheld a constitutional right to burn the American flag, despite arguments by proponents of a ban that flag-burning might trigger riots by offended patriots. 
We live in an age when just about everyone is offended by one word or another. If offense became a basis to disqualify speech, then there would remain little to say apart from, “It’s a nice day today!”

Free speech is the grease of a democratic society. Without it, no society can remain robust, dynamic, and accountable to its citizens. We sometimes need to hear unpleasant ideas. So where does Koran burning fit into this picture, especially in view of the fact that innocent people are murdered because of this.

Should the prevention of such offenses be the goal of Christian love or would this “love” enable unacceptable behavior?

Sometimes, love must be expressed as a “tough love” – a love that requires dialogue and confrontation rather than placation. If my son refused to ever do the dishes but demonstrated that instead he was willing to joyfully do any other chore that I might require of him, I might be insensitive to push for confrontation and “tough love.” Perhaps he merely has a strong aversion to dishes for some inexplicable reason, while he demonstrates a willingness to cooperate in a hundred other ways. I think, in this case, wisdom would require that I indulge him.

However, this is not the case with Koran burning. If the burning of Korans was only the offense, I would argue for indulgence. However, there seems to be an endless list of unpardonable offenses. This intolerance is partly fueled by the Koran, which forbids any form of criticism of Islam:

  • [Surah 33:57-58] Those who insult God and His Messenger will be rejected by God in this world and the next—He has prepared a humiliating punishment for them—and those who undeservedly insult believing men and women will bear the guilt of slander and obvious sin. (Haleem)
  • [Surah 33:59-61] Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and women believers to make their outer garment hang low over them, so as to be recognized and not insulted. God is most forgiving, most merciful. If the hypocrites, the sick of heart, and those who spread lies in the city [Medina] do not desist, We shall arouse you [Prophet] against them, and then they will only be your neighbors in this city for a short while. They will be rejected wherever they are found, and then seized and killed. (Haleem)
Consistent with the above surahs, James Arlandson recounts one of the sayings of Mohammad through which he okayed his followers to kill someone taunting him:

  • “Angered by the poems and now able to strike back after the Battle of Badr, Muhammad had had enough. He asked, "Who would rid me of [Kab]?" Five Muslims volunteered, one of whom was Kab’s foster-brother named Abu Naila. They informed him, "O apostle of God [Muhammad], we shall have to tell lies." He answered, "Say what you like, for you are free in the matter." (Arlandson, 5)
Instead of indulgence, confrontation is required. Questions need to be asked. Are Muslims willing to be part of a Western democracy where their beliefs will be questioned and subjected to criticism? Will they retaliate violently? Do they even believe in democracy or merely the imposition of Shariah Law, making everyone else second class citizens?

If we believe in free speech and its necessity for a healthy society and transparent relationships, then we need to ask these questions. We don’t need to burn Korans, but I think that there are many valid concerns that are being buried out of fear, hoping that they will just disappear.

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