Friday, September 10, 2010
SAN DIEGO It’s the week of 9-11 and this year that means a small-time evangelist in Florida has found a way to yank our chains and create a media typhoon. The Rev. Terry Jones has said he will burn a bunch of Korans on the anniversary of the terrorist attack. Today he is saying he may or may not. Stay tuned.
This is a guy who says things like “Islam is of the Devil.” Enough said about that.
I see this story as the collision of two gospels but not in the way Jones might have you believe. This isn’t Bible vs. Koran. It’s the Koran vs. the First Amendment.
Stupid and offensive statements like those of Pastor Jones are exactly the thing the U.S. Constitution is meant to protect. Burning the Koran. Burning the American flag. Those aren’t criminal acts of vandalism. They’re acts of political speech and in our democracy they demand protection. What’s not clear to me is whether predominantly Islamic nations share that view.
Belief in free speech is gospel in our country and the U.S. Constitution is our sacred book. What about other western democracies? I don’t know if they have a first amendment in Germany. But German Prime Minister Angela Merkel attended a ceremony in Potsdam honoring Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose life was threatened after he made fun of the Prophet Mohamed.
Freedom of expression is highly valued in the Christian West and the notorious Pastor Jones knew that as he transformed himself from the leader of a small Florida congregation to an international figure.
I spoke with Imam Taha Hassane, of the San Diego Islamic Center in Kearny Mesa, and I asked him what he thought of using free speech rights to insult his religion.
Hassane: I totally support the first amendment. But we also need to differentiate between freedom of speech and irresponsible speech. If the speech doesn’t harm anyone. That’s fine. But if the result of that free speech will cause damage to people from different communities and of different faiths, we need to review our understanding of the first amendment. You have heard President Obama talk about how this might put our soldiers in danger. This is not only speech, but it is an act that is harming people all over the world.
Me: So do you think burning the Koran is like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater?
Hassane: Yes, I think it is.
I also asked Hassane whether the Obama administration made a mistake when they dignified Jones’s provocative statements with a response. President Obama publically condemned the minister and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates actually got on the phone with the guy.
Hassane: I think (Obama’s) statement was very positive because he has to honor the speech he made last year in Cairo. There, he promised to restore the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world. So he cannot remain quiet when this most sacred book is being threatened in this way.
Barack Obama said something similar at this morning’s press conference when he took a question about his response to the situation.
Obama: The idea that we would burn the sacred text of another religion is contrary to what this country stands for. I hope this individual refrains from doing it. I’m also commander in chief, and we are seeing riots in Afghanistan that are threatening our soldiers. So we need to say that these kinds of actions put our people in harm’s way. This may be one individual in Florida… But in the age of the Internet this can cause us profound damage and we have to take action.
Obama may have seen fit to respond to Jones but he made sure he referred to him as nothing more than an “individual” from Florida. Obama is nothing if not cagey in his use of language.
America may stand for freedom of religion and not burning other people’s bibles. But the same constitutional amendment that protects religion also protects our ability to trash it. I still wonder if that makes sense to the world of Islam.