Jonah, my problem with the Koran burning stunt is that it is counterproductive. I hear what you’re saying about decency. But on that score, I don’t find the burning any more offensive in principle than I do its opposite extreme: the bizarro hyper-reverence with which the Koran is handled by the Defense Department.
Down at Gitmo, the Defense Department gives the Koran to each of the terrorists even though DoD knows they interpret it (not without reason) to command them to kill the people who gave it to them. To underscore our precious sensitivity to Muslims, standard procedure calls for the the book to be handled only by Muslim military personnel. Sometimes, though, that is not possible for various reasons. If, as a last resort, one of our non-Muslim troops must handle or transport the book, he must wear white gloves, and he is further instructed primarily to use the right hand (indulging Muslim culture’s taboo about the sinister left hand). The book is to be conveyed to the prisoners in a “reverent manner” inside a “clean dry towel.” This is a nod to Islamic teaching that infidels are so low a form of life that they should not be touched (as Ayatollah Ali Sistani teaches, non-Muslims are “considered in the same category as urine, feces, semen, dead bodies, blood, dogs, pigs, alcoholic liquors,” and “the sweat of an animal who persistently eats [unclean things].”
This is every bit as indecent as torching the Koran, implicitly endorsing as it does the very dehumanization of non-Muslims that leads to terrorism. Furthermore, there is hypocrisy to consider: the Defense Department now piously condemning Koran burning is the same Defense Department that itself did not give a second thought to confiscating and burning bibles in Afghanistan.
Quite consciously, U.S. commanders ordered this purge in deference to sharia proscriptions against the proselytism of faiths other than Islam. And as General Petraeus well knows, his chain of command is not the only one destroying bibles. Non-Muslim religious artifacts, including bibles, are torched or otherwise destroyed in Islamic countries every single day as a matter of standard operating procedure. (See, e.g., my 2007 post on Saudi government guidelines that prohibit Jews and Christians from bringing bibles, crucifixes, Stars of David, etc., into the country — and, of course, not just non-Muslim accessories but non-Muslim people are barred from entering Mecca and most of Medina, based on the classical interpretation of an injunction found in what Petraeus is fond of calling the Holy Qur’an (sura 9:28: “Truly the pagans are unclean . . . so let them not . . . approach the sacred mosque”).
I don’t like book burning either, but I think there are different kinds of book burnings. One is done for purposes of censorship — the attempt to purge the world of every copy of a book to make it as if the sentiments expressed never existed. A good modern example is Cambridge University Press’s shameful pulping of all known copies of Alms for Jihad (see Stanley’s 2007 post on that). The other kind of burning is done as symbolic condemnation. That’s what I think Terry Jones was doing. He knows he doesn’t have the ability to purge the Koran from the world, and he wasn’t trying to. He was trying to condemn some of the ideas that are in it — or maybe he really thinks the whole thing is condemnable.
This is a particularly aggressive and vivid way to express disdain, but I don’t know that it is much different in principle from orally condemning some of the Koran’s suras and verses. Sura 9 of the Koran, for example, states the supremacist doctrine that commands Muslims to kill and conquer non-Muslims (e.g., 9:5: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) . . .”; 9:29: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the last day, nor hold forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, from among the people of the Book [i.e., the Jews and Christians], until they pay the jizya [i.e., the tax paid for the privilege of living as dhimmis under the protection of the sharia state] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued”). I must say, I’ve got a much bigger problem with the people trying to comply with those commands than with the guy who burns them.
I think the big problem with what Jones did is the gratuitous insult to all Muslims, including the millions who do not subscribe to the violent jihadist or broader Islamist construction of Islamic scripture. They have found some way to rationalize the incendiary scriptures — and if it works for them, who the hell am I to say they’re wrong? They are our natural allies in this battle, and as I’ve often pointed out, without their help, we could not have done things like infiltrate the Blind Sheikh’s terror cell, gather vital intelligence, thwart terrorist attacks, and refine trial evidence into compelling proof.
These people regard the Koran as the most important of their scriptures. When someone burns the Koran in an act of indiscriminate, wholesale condemnation, the message to them is that their belief system is incorrigible. Freedom of speech means that we have to allow that argument to be made, and I’m not entirely sure it’s wrong. But good Muslim people give us reason to hope that what ails Islam can be reformed. I don’t see the upside in alienating those people. I think you can condemn the condemnable aspects of the Koran without condemning everything. But that’s just my opinion, and Mr. Jones is as entitled to his as I am to mine. And for what it’s worth, I doubt my opinion would be much more popular than his in Mazar-e-Sharif.