From the burned pages of a holy book, a country is in flames.
Terry Jones — the radical, Florida-based pastor with a white handlebar mustache, who threatened to hold an “International Burn-a-Koran Day” last Sept. 11, held a mock trial for the Islamic holy book on March 20. The book was burned and Jones’ actions went relatively unnoticed. That is, until two days later, when Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari “strongly condemn[ed]” the burning and, another two days after that, Afghan President Hamid Karzai criticized it as “a crime against the religion and the entire Muslim nation.”
Since then, thousands of Afghans have taken to the streets in protest and at least 20 people have died, including seven U.N. workers. Eleven countries have officially condemned the Quran burning. General David Petraeus has blasted Jones’ act as “enormously intolerant,” Senator Lindsey Graham has gone further, noting that “free speech is a great idea, but we’re in war …” President Barack Obama also criticized the burning, but added that “to attack and kill innocent people in response is outrageous.”
Let me start by echoing all the unequivocal condemnations of the Quran burning. Not only is the incendiary desecration of a holy book utterly offensive, but it is potentially an obvious and easy recruitment tool for terrorist groups. President Obama explicitly and publicly called Jones’ proposed book-burning last year a threat to American troops. While it is clear that no death is an appropriate response to any action, despite how offensive, Jones clearly acted with the knowledge that lives might be lost. This should not be forgotten. But neither should Karzai’s very political decision to ask the U.N. and Congress to condemn the burning.
Simply put, this should not be brought to the Congress as a freedom of speech issue, as Graham implies. It is perfectly fine for lawmakers to consider President Karzai’s request to formally condemn the burning, but they should certainly not press charges against Jones or push for any laws inhibiting Americans’ freedom of speech. As hateful as it was, Jones has (and should have) every right to burn the holy book. Karzai knew this, but still asked for a formal condemnation and legal action against Jones. Whether or not Karzai’s actions were (as Jones’ were) a publicity stunt, I do not know. I only know that Karzai knows perfectly well that the burning was legal in the United States, just as it is legal to burn an American flag or the Bible. In the same way that Americans should not stereotype all Afghans as violent terrorists, Afghans should not stereotype all Americans as Jones’ supporters. This is the message to send, not one that comprises our commitment to freedom of speech.
I understand that Jones’ actions put innocent lives at risk and have, indirectly, already resulted in lives lost. We should do whatever is in our jurisdiction to prevent hateful actions, but we cannot legally label this a hate crime. Jones acted with full awareness of the potential consequences of his actions, but the death and injuries so far were not produced with his hands. At the end of the day, Jones simply provoked protestors nearly 8,000 miles away.
Instead of focusing on the actions of a radical pastor with a small following (despite how much publicity he might get), maybe we should consider why seven U.N. workers were killed before coalition forces managed to come to the site and control the violence. Maybe we should also consider why some of the protests have been violent, like those in the typically very peaceful city of Mazar-e-Sharif, and others have been peaceful, like those in Parwan province.
It is likely that these protests are not purely a reaction to the Quran burning, but also an expression of a rising anger among Afghans against the United States and other international actors. But the incendiary act has sparked four days of protests so far with no end in sight. Jones has not burned another Quran since, but he has every legal right to do so tomorrow. And that is how it should be.
Shahla Naimi is a junior in Trumbull College.
Correction: April 6, 2011
In an earlier version of this article the quote “Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in war …” was mistakenly attributed to Senator Harry Reid. The statement was made by Senator Lindsey Graham. The News regrets the error.