Thursday, 14 April 2011

Should Qur'an-burning be an offence?

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Pastor Terry Jones
In a provocative piece on the New Statesman website, blogger Dan Hodges suggests that "If you burn a Quran you should go to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect your £100."

Hodges is responding to the news this week that a BNP candidate, Sion Owens, was arrested in South Wales after footage emerged of him setting fire to a copy of the Qur'an. He was charged with a public order offence, which was subsequently withdrawn by the Crown Prosecution Service, although investigations are apparently ongoing. The Owens case, which follows the recent violence in Afghanistan prompted by a book burning conducted by controversial Florida pastors Terry Jones and Wayne Sapp, raises serious questions about free expression, but Hodges argues that free speech should not include the right to burn the Qur'an:
"Those who defend Quran burning on the basis of free speech miss the point. For starters, it's not free. It requires someone to go out, buy a book, buy petrol, (not even cheap at the moment, never mind free), light them, film them, then distribute the proceedings to whatever little clique they call their friends, or more widely on Youtube or some other "social" media. This is an overt, conscious action, motivated by malign intent. It is not the product of open, free-spirited discourse, but an aggressive, premeditated, provocation.

Nor is it actually speech. It's not opening a dialogue or building an argument. Quite the opposite. It's a deliberate act of destruction; the destruction of a dialogue and argument constructed by others. If you don't like Islam, fine. Write a book about why. Don't burn one."
He continues by arguing that the potential consequences of Qur'an burning, i.e. violent reprisals by Islamic extremists, should ensure that doing so is a criminal offence:
"It's not just the action, it's the consequences. We know what Quran burning leads to. In the last couple of weeks it's resulted in innocent people being murdered and maimed. It's increased the threat to British and western troops serving overseas. It's boosted the Taliban and other terrorist organisations.

If our laws are not for preventing people from deliberately engaging in actions and activity that incite others to murder, propagate international terrorism and lay the seeds of civil disorder, what are they for?"
Hodges' argument is in stark contrast to a piece in our next issue (which we've just sent to the printers) by Padraig Reidy, news editor of Index on Censorship magazine. Padraig argues that, while book burning is clearly a stupid and provocative act, we should not allow the behaviour of a few senseless individuals to lead to the erosion of the vital human right of free expression:
"Ultimately, it is the perpetrators of murderous violence who must be blamed for murderous violence (in a civilian setting, that is). While rioters may well have held the Qu’ran dear, this is not a reason for killing. As philosophy writer Nigel Warburton pointed out on Index on Censorship’s Free Speech Blog: “no idea or object should be sacrosanct from criticism or ridicule, and we should be clear that we condemn violence far more than we condemn the expression of offensive views.”

Afghanistan’s President Karzai has sought the prosecution of Jones and Sapp, but, admirably, US authorities have not for a moment suggested this could be a possibility.

The Kabul slaughter was horrific. But it should only strengthen our resolve in defending free speech, both from and for book burners."
What do you make of these arguments? Are you with Padraig on this, or do you agree with Hodges that a line should be drawn with deliberately inflammatory acts like Qur'an burning? Share your view by answering the poll below, and please do discuss at length in the comments.

I've phrased the poll question as "Should it be a criminal offence to burn the Qur'an in public?", with "public" intended to cover broadcasting the act on YouTube and so on, as Sion Owens did. I've set the answers to "Yes", "No" and "Not sure" to keep things straightforward, but you can discuss which laws would cover it and so on in the comments.

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