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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.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I'm not surprised blasphemy is illegal in Norway (8+ / 0-)

    Like the other countries it has a state religion.  What's interesting to me is how pluralism has given blasphemy laws a new lease on life.  The New Synthesis is that the nonsensical beliefs of new arrivals to your country should receive the same protections as your country's historically dominant nonsensical beliefs.  I do have some regard for this as real pluralism, but I'd much prefer a final relegation of religion belief to the same category as all belief: subject to questioning and mockery.

    Todo tiempo pasado fue mejor. I don't believe that, but I hear this sig is permanent.

    by Rich in PA on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 08:44:26 AM PDT

  •  Finally someone talking sense nt (5+ / 0-)

    John McCain is deeply disappointed that Barack Obama has failed to follow through on John McCain's campaign promises.

    by tiponeill on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 09:03:30 AM PDT

  •  I'm perversely curious... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LodinLepp, A Voice, Themistoclea, oldcrow

    ...in the argument by which burning a book is blasphemous theologically (I do consider it blasphemous to the basic tenets of Enlightenment rationalism, but that's okay too).

    What happens, exactly, to the gods when one of their books ignites? Does it hurt their feelings? Does it accomplish the seemingly impossible by enervating the putatively omnipotent? Does it increase somebody's suffering in hell (some dipshit up in Florida has a Zippo and a youtube account, which means an extra jab with the demonic pitchfork, etc.)?  

    And what degree of intention is required with the burning in order to make it blasphemous?

    Say this preacher's house had been struck by lightning the night before the publicity stunt, and the Koran had been inside his house and burned along with his copies of TV Guide and Zealotry Today! magazines. Presumably the preacher would be considered to have been righteously punished for his effrontery (whereas I would believe that Zeus had struck the first blow in a coming war among the supernaturals).

    Now, what if the pastor had installed faulty wiring (helped along by a libertarian anti-regulatory environment wherein he wasn't required to get new wiring inspected by an approved electrician), which then burned the house and the Koran? He clearly bore some kind of responsibility for burning the Koran, but presumably the charge of blasphemy would require that he held particular anti-Islamic thoughts in his head at the precise moment that the exploding television ignited the book, etc.

    So much pre-modern thinking, so little time!

    •  Continuing that line of thought.. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Swill to Power

      When the Big Guy does sentence me and my fellow heathens to burn in hellfire for all eternity, is it because of His wrath? Or pride? Or is it just pure gluttony?

      There seems to be a double standard.

      Here comes sunshine.

      by LodinLepp on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 10:34:13 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  come on, now... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        A Voice, LodinLepp
        burn in hellfire for all eternity, is it because of His wrath? Or pride? Or is it just pure gluttony?

        The correct answer is: LOVE. You are tortured for eternity, burning in the lake of fire because of THE INFINITE LOVE OF THE PRINCE OF PEACE, dontchaknow.

        As Homer Simpson might say: "Mmmmmmm. Fire."

        There are many reasons why I'm for more lighthearted blasphemy than burning books:

        1) air pollution
        2) the burning of people is frequently subsequent to the burning of books
        3) Magical thinking -- e.g., that physical flame can purify souls or destroy ideas -- is invariably inferior to disputation.

  •  I agree with the person who said, "Theology is (5+ / 0-)

    a learned discipline entirely lacking  a subject."

  •  As far as I can tell, the vast majority of (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lotusmaglite, A Voice

    religious people agree with you, in one way or another. In the case of the caricatures as well as the Quran burning, some people rioted, and some truly awful people killed indiscriminately in retaliation -- but over a billion didn't. Some may have been offended, sure, because people tend to take offense when their religion or religious symbols are attacked, but words or silence was the extent of their protests.

    I don't agree with blasphemy laws, but of course book burnings and the like are rarely just about the books, especially religious books. Particularly when the target is an already vilified religion or group of people who practice said religion, so I think the intent of the burner is important.

    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.

    I don't think so, not necessarily. I think it's just needless provocation and insult against more than a billion people. An act of defiance "against the power structures that keep intolerance and bigotry in place" would require study, thought, and an attack on those actual power structures, which vary from region to region. Because many of them, like in the Christian religion, are more regional power structures than religious ones. The religious ones are often just overlaid on top of the existing power structures. So attacking the religion itself, or a mass attack against its adherents in all their variety and sects I think does more to solidify resistance to the attackers, and encourage coalescing around the religion or religious leaders or whatever, than it does anything else.

    In which case it is sometimes strengthening the power structures, not weakening them. In other words, I think it's dumb, ineffective and counterproductive (but no one should die over it.)

    “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

    by Nanette K on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 10:23:16 AM PDT

    •  A couple of things (0+ / 0-)

      First of all: A lot of people rioted when the cartoons were published, and I don't think we yet know the scope of the latest demonstrations.

      Secondly: A lot of my friends grew up in a very conservative, Christian environment, where most authorities were fundamentalist, i.e., children were taught from an early age that what the Bible said, was literally true, and that people who weren't good Christians and did not act as such would burn in Hell for ever and ever. If that had been me, I don't doubt for a second that I might at some point have burned a Bible. Knowing myself, I might even have done it on a public square on a Sunday morning. In no way would that have been "a needless provocation and insult against more than a billion people," it would simply have been my own way of rebelling against Christian fundamentalism and it's consequences. People have different motivations and habits. Some times they trash stuff. I doesn't mean they're necessarily vandals, bigots, extremists etc.

      Thirdly: At the end of the day it's just a book. And a caricature is just a drawing. And if politians and state leaders keep legitimizing the outrage, the problem will never go away. If you trivialize it, however, it may eventually become no less important than, say, swearing.

      What Obama should have said, was:

      Ok, I know a lot of people are angry, but you need to realize that you have to choose between joining the 21st century and throwing a fit every time some guy in some foreign country does something that is in some way insulting to your religion. Religion, as a set of doctrines interpreted by religious authorities, must not be taken too seriously, or it becomes merely a vehicle for perpetual conflict, and none of us really want that.  

      On the other hand, I can understand that you're pissed about the occupation, the murderous weekly bombing of your villages by our flying killer robots, and the support for all kinds of corrupt people we happed to be in bed with.

      Wouldn't that have been something?

      Here comes sunshine.

      by LodinLepp on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 11:26:51 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Seriously. People need to de-fundamentalize. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LodinLepp

    I mean, killing pretty much anyone who's Other because some cracker "minister" in another country burns a holy book?

    I'm tempted to pull the covers of every holy text I can get my hands on, from every religion, drop them into a blender, and comingle the texts.

    So he says to me, do you wanna be a BAD boy? And I say YEAH baby YEAH! Surf's up space ponies! I'm makin' gravy WITHOUT THE LUMPS! HAAA-ha-ha-ha!!!

    by Cenobyte on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 11:26:26 AM PDT

  •  It may also be (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LodinLepp, Themistoclea
    Burning a Bible or a Qu’ran may indeed be a vehicle for “extreme intolerance and bigotry,”

    a vehicle against extreme intolerance and bigotry.

    Nice guys finish last. Nice guys shouldn't race.

    by A Voice on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 11:32:38 AM PDT

  •  I expressed the exact same sentiments (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LodinLepp

    in this diary posted yesterday, "Scalia defends Koran Burning"

    Please consider joining and following Atheist in America for in depth discussions such as this.

    •  Great diray! (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Themistoclea, arodb

      Didn't see it until now. And a brilliant idea too, although I would be extremely surprised if it happened...

      I haven't used DK4 much, so I'm not quite sure how the group think works, but I'm following Atheist in America now (I think).

      Thanks for the info!

      Here comes sunshine.

      by LodinLepp on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 12:19:00 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I've wanted to send Tery Jones (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LodinLepp

    a video of me wiping my bottom with bible pages, (anonymously) just to watch his head explode on national TV. Whats sauce for the goose...

    May you live in interesting times--Chinese curse

    by oldcrow on Sun Apr 03, 2011 at 12:02:05 PM PDT

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