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Last Fall, a wide range of world leaders from the Pope to General Petraeus to President Obama asked Jones to please not act on his threat to burn the Qu'ran. American military leaders said that among other things, such an act would endanger the troops.  Ultimately, Jones stood down.  But on March 20th he went ahead and staged a much less publicized kangaroo court in which he found the sacred text of Islam guilty of "crimes against humanity," including causing murder, rape, and terrorism. He sentenced the book to burning.  This enraged several Muslim clerics in Afghanistan, who led a mob in search of Americans against whom to retaliate. Unable to find any, they attacked a United Nations office and killed a number of UN staff (accounts vary.) A number of Afghan civilians were killed or wounded as well.  Apparently, no Americans were killed in the fighting.

A video of the burning shows a kerosene-soaked Qu'ran  set ablaze in what appears to be a barbecue grill inside the church hall used for the "trial."

We can all hope that cooler heads will prevail all around. The Muslim Public Affairs Council for one, is clear in its denunciation of the atrocity in Afghanistan. But the episode is likely to reverberate though public life in surprising ways.  

But first, let's review what has happened so far.

The New York Times reported

Mr. Ahmadzai, the police spokesman, said the demonstrators were angry about the burning of the Koran at the church of Pastor Terry Jones on Mar. 20. Mr. Jones had caused an international uproar by threatening to burn the Koran last year on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and demonstrations at the time led to deaths throughout Afghanistan, but on a small scale. Mr. Jones subsequently had publicly promised not to burn a Koran, but then presided over a mock trial and the burning of the Koran at his small fringe church in Gainesville, Fla.
After news of the attack, Mr. Jones, released a statement expressing no regret for the Koran burning. He called the attack on the compound “a very tragic and criminal action” and called on the United States and the United Nations to take action. “The time has come to hold Islam accountable,” he said.

A prominent Afghan cleric, Mullavi Qyamudin Kashaf, acting chief of the Ulema Council of Afghanistan, called for American authorities to arrest and try Mr. Jones as a war criminal.

The Ulema Council recently met to discuss the Koran burning, he said. “We expressed our deep concerns about this act and we were expecting the violence that we are witnessing now,” Mr. Kashaf said. “Unless they try him and give him the highest possible punishment, we will witness violence and protests not only in Afghanistan but in the entire world.”

Last year, even though Mr. Jones called off his burning of the Koran, a subsequent wave of protests at NATO facilities in Afghanistan led to at least five deaths. In several of those incidents, Taliban agitators played a role, allegedly spreading rumors that the Koran burning had taken place. However, the Taliban have had little or no presence in Mazar-i-Sharif, one of the most peaceful places in Afghanistan.

But the outrage is not limited to Afghanistan.  Muslim and other groups around the world have condemned the Qu'ran burning, particularly in Pakistan, where one prominent cleric has demanded that Jones to be arrested and tried as a "terrorist;" another group has put a $2 million dollar bounty on his head; and another called for his execution.

For Americans, Jones's actions cut to the quick of the central ethos of our culture and our Constitutional framework, by pitting rights of free expression against freedom of religion -- while the world looks on and wonders what  is wrong with us.  

Book burning, such as Jones's stunt is highlighted and condemned annually by the American Library Association and a number of allied publishing, scholarly, and First Amendment advocacy groups, during Banned Books Week.   While we celebrate the freedom to read in this way, we also recognize that the same First Amendment that gives us the right to read books, gives Terry Jones and his ilk the right to burn them. And even as we have the obligation to recognize and denounce his hateful and inflammatory actions and words, we also need to be careful not to call for government censorship of controversial speech.  This is part of the price of maintaining a society where we understand with the fiercest of urgency that free speech is a necessity, and not a luxury to be ho-hummed away in the face of controversies such as this.

But standards are different elsewhere.  Because governments in many places have a far greater say in determining what is allowable speech, people who live there find it hard to believe that the U.S. government has no hand in Jones' outrageous activities. (It is hard to explain for example, why governmental leaders spoke out last Fall, but failed to do so this time.) In other cases, more considered views such as that of the Pakistan Bar Council, the leading body of lawyers in the country, plans to complain to the United Nations. Meanwhile, high level responses have varied. The presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan have condemned the burning, the president of the United States has condemned the attack on the UN office but took awhile to issue a statement that found a nuanced way of condemning both the burning and the massacre.

Demanding severest possible action against the culprits for committing this heinous act - that not only gravely offended the Muslims but could also fan terrorism and religious hatred - the committee condemned the inaction and indifference of the US government on the issue and its ‘deliberate avoidance of taking any action against the culprits’.

While from this distance, U.S. cooperation in any legal sanctions against  Jones would seem unlikely, the respect for the rights of Americans to hold and express controversial views will likely be severely strained. Will, for example, there be efforts to suppress domestic free speech, or internet commentary and publications, because it might endanger American personnel in other countries?

Past First Amendment controversies, while bearing certain similarities are actually very different. The recent case of Fred Phelps is perhaps the best example.  His ugly protests at the funerals of people who have died of AIDS, and American soldiers who died in combat, were the subject of laws designed to stop him -- but his activities no matter how heinous were  upheld as constitutionally protected free speech by the Supreme Court.  

But last Fall, our top governmental leaders believed that there was a significant risk to American servicemen in Afghanistan and elsewhere if Jones went through with his planned bonfire of the Qu'rans -- and they publicly spoke out.  As we can see now, their concerns were not unfounded. As hateful as Phelps can be, to my knowledge no one has ever attacked Americans or UN staff overseas because of him.  Jones's mediagenic provocations already have.   Jones denies that he is in anyway responsible for inciting mob violence.  Rather, he says that the violence proves his point about Islam.  

And that's where it gets complicated, volatile, and dangerous.  Jones's web site includes pictures of the trial and the burning, and some key passages from the bogus trial.  So the provocation will continue, and the undisputed evidence of what occurred and why is available for all the world to see.  Although we have no way of knowing if there is a connection to the web site, there was a second day of rioting, deaths and injuries in Kandahar in response to the the burning, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The activities of Terry Jones and Fred Phelps certainly epitomize the aphorism that just because you have the right to do something, doesn't mean that it is the right thing to do.  How we navigate the ongoing Jones spectacle, will be a test of how well we embrace the sometimes paradoxical values of freedom of conscience and free speech.

[UPDATE]  Jones will be in Michigan on April 22nd, protesting in front of a mosque in Dearborn.  Dearborn has a large Arab-American population, and the mosque is reportedly the largest in the U.S.

[Crossposted from Talk to Action]

Originally posted to Frederick Clarkson on Sat Apr 02, 2011 at 12:57 PM PDT.

Also republished by oo, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, and Spiritual Organization of Unapologetic Liberals at Daily Kos.

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