by Raza Habib Raja
Due to the proposed “Burn a Quran Day” by Pastor Terry Jones, Muslim world is once again under scrutiny and for reasons pertaining to their faith and extraordinary reverence they attach to it. However, it is not just the Muslims, but the USA’s democracy and its ideals of freedom of action which are also under the critical microscope. The world has become a strange place and in this environment of deep polarization and mistrust even the action of a previously obscure Pastor can light the fuse.
But even more important than the issue of burning are the underlying questions which need to be addressed both by Islamic and the Western World.
Some of these questions are deeply philosophical and challenge our current understanding of ideals like freedom of expression and ethnic sensitivity. Some of the questions pertain to the extreme sensitivity of the Muslims and their more than necessary response.
First, let us evaluate the most burning question which is deeply philosophical as well and that is use of freedom particularly when it is apparently protected by constitution. Constitutional liberty enshrined in the Bills of rights is an extraordinary innovation which has been one of the factors which over two centuries has made USA a bastion of individual liberty. Obviously this freedom comes with several strings (one being that one cannot incite violence). However, this is not the first time that the “cover” of the first amendment is being used to incite hatred in a symbolic way against religious, ethnic or religious community.
The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear in several landmark rulings that speech deemed offensive to many people, even a majority, cannot be suppressed by the government unless it is clearly directed to intimidate someone or incite violence. The incitement exception comes from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), where the Court held that a Ku Klux Klan’s leader’s speech did not incite violence. The opinion said that “the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”( Source http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org).
In fact the legal opinion is that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution will protect Pastor, in the same way it allows the Ku Klux Klan to burn crosses and for protesters to torch the American flag.
Despite everything the US court system is likely to persist in its current interpretation of the first amendment. Moreover, despite misuses Bills of rights and its amendments uphold individual liberty and protection of minority against the hegemony of majority. In addition the courts have been pretty consistent across various cases and have uniformly decided that unless speech or action directly incites violence, it cannot be prohibited. And Muslims should not forget that the Mosque near Ground Zero is also protected by the SAME First amendment. For that matter, all the Muslims know that if tomorrow some Muslim tries to burn Bible, he too will not be prohibited by law because according to interpretation that act won’t be construed as inciting violence against Christians.
And the irony here is that if anything, what the Pastor will do will not incite against Muslims but by them!!! In fact if US law is applied in real letter and spirit than the bans may actually be imposed on possible “protest” speeches and action by the Muslims in US as these are far more likely to incite violence.
And that violence will not be limited to USA but will endanger even US troops and citizens everywhere. In fact the fear of possible repercussions has even invited condemnation by General Gen. David Petraeus who told the media. “It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems”. Senator Hillary Clinton has also voiced condemnation and the list of high profile heavyweights condemning the pastor is growing.
The issue it seems is not that USA is insensitive to Muslim concerns as is clear by such high level condemnations but rather is the fundamental question of more than necessary Muslim response. It is clear that in USA the rule of law, by and large, overrides everything and therefore the maximum the Executive can do in this situation is to make a plea to an old Pastor to show responsibility. They are already doing that. The central issue for the US is about making a previously obscure Pastor understand that freedom comes with a responsibility.
There is still a possibility that US may be able to devise a legal way out of it and prevent this from happening. In law there are ways and methods to do so. However much bigger issue will remain unaddressed.
Frankly much bigger issue whether we Muslims agree or not, pertains to our own reaction. What really bothers me is that we Muslims always allow ourselves to be swept away by such incidences. Despite clearly knowing the limitations of the US government some of the even educated Muslims have this tendency to express misplaced anger and worst still actually provoke others. What we always forget is that we due to our own excessive sentimental and extremist behavior actually encourage such incidences. In fact the previous “draw Muhammad day” on Facebook was done more to actually show defiance to excessive threats by Muslim zealots.
I am amazed that right now so less of us get angered on far more sinister acts perpetuated by Taliban monsters. In fact our anger is so misplaced that those who are killing us can potentially use this incidence for their sinister aims. Moreover, literally every time our excessive reaction gives far more projection to the event than it would have received had we just simply ignored it. We made Salman Rushdie a superstar and may well be in the process of making Mr. Terry Jones internationally famous (in fact he already has become!!!) Our reactions always end up creating sympathies for the original culprits as our excessive and completely irresponsible response complete pales their share of irresponsibility.