The Right to Be Wrong


For more than a week, the world media has obsessively followed the story of an eccentric church leader, Pastor Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville Florida, and his off-again on-again plan to burn copies of the Koran on September 11. Jones has been labeled a “fundamentalist,” a “renegade,” and a crazy man with “extremist views about Islamic Sharia law.” His church was identified by Gainesville’s mayor as a “tiny fringe group and an embarrassment to our community.” Jones’s has spread his slogan, “Islam is of the Devil,” around the local area on signs, billboards and t-shirts.

The media focus on Jones’s intentions was doubtless intensified by a slow news cycle, the end of Ramadan, and most of all by the controversy over the possible construction of a 13-story Islamic Center, including a mosque, adjacent to Ground Zero in New York City. The outcry against Jones has been shrill and vociferous.

Crowds of more than 10,000 protestors flooded the streets of Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan chanting anti-US slogans. Muslims in Nepal threatened “World War III,” while Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood declared Jones’s possible Koran burning a “Declaration of War” against Islam. World leaders including President Obama, have decried the threatened burning as the possible catalyst of international terrorism, violence and death.

Obama said, "You know, you could have serious violence in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan. This is a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda. As a very practical matter, as commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States, I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan.”

There is a strange dissonance in both official statements and media reports. It is true that Jones is an easy man to mock and categorize. It is also true that his publicity stunt is ill-conceived and rooted in his own narrowly focused worldview and rage against Islam.

But the international context of this ongoing drama seems to be lost in translation. The media has an apparent blind spot and – at least thus far – has barely mentioned the wanton violence that has repeatedly occurred in response to Western speech or expression understood to oppose Islam.

There has been an indisputable global track record of Muslim rioting, vandalism, bloodshed and killing in reaction to such incidents as Muslim BrotherhoodSalman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, the Pope’s speech at Regensburg, the Danish Cartoon Crisis, the (untrue) story of a Koran being flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo, and an array of other “blasphemies” or “defamations” of Islam.

Are such bloodbaths now understood to be the acceptable consequences of Western freedom of expression and speech?

As Paul Marshall and Nina Shea point out in their National Review Online article “Burning the Koran,” Western governments are under pressure from the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) to repress ridicule and critique of Islam, and dissent within Islam, “in ways analogous to the repression already existing in many of its own countries….They continue to demand that Western governments use state power to coerce compliance by their own citizens with Islamic blasphemy strictures…”

Characters like Terry Jones may well be an embarrassment to his community and perhaps to Christians and Americans in general. His foolish intentions, if carried out, may indeed incite bloodshed and death.

But in America, thanks to freedoms defined in the Bill of Rights, Pastor Jones and his controversial followers have—at least for now—the right to be wrong.

Meanwhile, the media focus on his dangerous plan should also spotlight the even more outrageous, wildly disproportionate and bloodthirsty responses that may well take place worldwide if Jones strikes the match and the Koran goes up in flames.

North America, ReligionLela Gilbert