The Qu’ran should be burned.
As should the Bible.
Or to use the words of a former priest, and a great teacher of religion, Alan Watts,:
I think the Bible ought to be ceremoniously and reverently burned every Easter. We need it no more, because the Spirit is with us. It’s a dangerous book, and to worship it is of course a far more dangerous idolatry than bowing down to images of wood and stone. Nobody can confuse a wooden image with God, but you can very easily confuse a set of ideas with God, because concepts are more rarified and abstract.”
This is one reason dogmatic religious texts should be burned: to demonstrate the awareness that ideas are not to be confused with deities, let alone an authoritarian monarch who happens to share your view on how sociopolitical power should be structured.
But there is also another, related expression, which should be regarded as equally legitimate: That is the demonstration of opposition to how those doctrines are applied – religiously and politically.
In fact, the right to burn dogmatic religious and political texts should be regarded as one of the most important rights of expression. I believe Obama and other state leaders should defend such actions as an acceptable and even important form of expression, rather than simply automatically and conveniently branding them actions of “extreme intolerance and bigotry,” no matter how nutty the culprit pastor might have been in this particular instance.
I live in Norway, which, truthfully, I tend to regard as a far more progressive country than the US in most areas of policy. But, a bit surprisingly -- and perhaps as a result of religious tradition coupled with modern political correctness -- this is not quite the case here, as blasphemy is still illegal in Norway. That’s right: Blasphemy is illegal. In Norway.
Granted, the law has been regarded a sleeping statute for many years, and no blasphemy charges have been brought since 1933. The last time this law really came to use was in 1980 when Life of Brian was banned by the Norwegian Board of Film Classification. When the film eventually saw a theatrical release in Norway, the movie posters were coupled with big signs that said: “This is not a movie about Jesus.” Crisis averted, and no one got killed.
Still, efforts to repeal the law in later years have failed. The law states that charges must only be brought when it’s “in the public interest.” This was perhaps not so problematic as long as Norway kept growing ever more secular, and I suppose the only people who might feel remotely insulted by blasphemy were a few of the lingering active members of the State Church, and perhaps the Pentecostals and their spin-offs, generally the least violent demographic one could possibly imagine. Even as Jesus and His teachings suffered public ridicule on a regular basis, there were very few, if any, serious claims to revive the Blasphemy Law and punish the perpetrators. Even in the most conservative part of the Bible Belt, there seemed to be a sense that Eternal Damnation would suffice.
The transformation of Norway to a multicultural society, at least in Oslo, seems to have changed this dynamic somewhat, although no new charges of blasphemy have yet been brought. The most notable formal complaints of blasphemy that were filed in the 1980s/1990s were the attempts to stop the Norwegian publication of Salman Rushdie’s book “Satanic Verses.” (The publisher, William Nygaard, was later shot by unknown perpetrators in 1993.) Multiculturalism was probably also an important reason why the Blasphemy law was not repealed in 2004, despite the recommendations of the Freedom of Speech Commission.
In 2006 there was much brouhaha after the Norwegian Christian newspaper Magazinet in an article about freedom of speech published a facsimile of the now infamous Muhammad editorial cartoons first published by the Danish daily Jyllandsposten. A number of formal complaints were filed, and the debate over blasphemy and freedom of speech was revived. The Norwegian flag (which is, btw, a piece of cloth with a big cross on it) was burned during riots in several Muslim countries, and the Norwegian embassy in Syria was stormed. Magazinet editor Vebjørn Selbekk reluctantly apologized after pressure from the Norwegian government, as well as several death threats. No blasphemy charges were brought against Selbekk, but the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jonas Gahr Støre, apologized on Al Jazeera and was later criticized by many for appeasing the protestors and undermining freedom of speech in Norway.
Forward to 2011: Following the Qu’ran burning by pastor Wayne Sapp on March 20, Norwegian Lt.Col. Siri Skare, working as an unarmed advisor for the UN Asistance Mission in Afghanistan, was one of the people killed on April 1, when demonstrators stormed the UN offices in Mazar-e Sharif. Støre was the first Western leader to condemn the Qu’ran burning, calling it a “disrespectful violation of people’s faith. “ When asked about how it relates to the killing of Lt.Col. Skare, he added: “At the same time, it is within what is permitted by law in democracies.”
This is quite interesting, as Støre seems to imply that Norway is not a democracy. It seems very clear to me that burning the Qu’ran would be prohibited by Norwegian blasphemy laws (I say this as a layperson). Whether it would be “in the public interest” to bring charges is of course the million dollar question, but I really can’t see how burning the Qu’ran or the Bible could not be considered blasphemy under the law, especially considering how extensive this law is. Here, a person is guilty of blasphemy if he (loosely translated) “in words or deeds insults or in an offensive or hurtful manner shows contempt for any faith permitted in this country, or the doctrines of any here existing religious community or practice of worship[ …]”
How to deal with this increasingly contentious dilemma? In my opinion: Blasphemy is the way to go. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be nice to people, and generally show people respect. Also, it doesn’t mean that blasphemy is always the smartest option.
Still, in these days of clashing civilizations and explosive globalization I believe it’s more important than ever to demand acceptance for controversial political and religious expression, including all forms of expression which do not threaten anyone or otherwise violate anyone’s rights and freedoms. This includes expressions whereby one may step on the toes of people who believe that something very bad will eventually happen to all those who don’t share his or her opinion. It includes possibly insulting the idols of billions of people, and attacking the same dogmata and theological opinions that after thousands of years still manage to inspire new generations to hate their neighbors, because of the ridiculous notion that it is their millennia old religious doctrines that constitute the infallible laws that must guide all human behavior in the 21st century.
Burning a Bible or a Qu’ran may indeed be a vehicle for “extreme intolerance and bigotry,” but, more importantly, it may also be an attack against those very same phenomena, and an act of defiance against the power structures that keep intolerance and bigotry in place. What if the Qu’ran had been burned by an Afghan woman? Or by a dissident from Pakistan, where a woman was recently sentenced to death for allegedly speaking badly of the prophet Muhammad? Would it have been ok then?
These kinds of expression – be it caricatures or book burning – may not always be wise, or a product of good intentions. Still, they are articulations that a free, modern society should not only accept, but indeed defend even more vehemently than less controversial forms of expression. In fact, I submit that the war between cultures and the rise of religious fundamentalism as a vehicle for authoritarianism can only be avoided to the extent that the following two conditions are met:
1) Blasphemy must be a universally accepted and protected right.
2) Dogmatic religion must be described and treated as an antithesis to modernity, unless it’s followers manage the art of not taking themselves or their theology too seriously.