By Liaquat Ali Khan
The recent Qur'an burning by Pastor Terry Jones, the author of Islam is of the Devil, is the continuation of a Western medieval custom of assaulting the dignity of Islam, particularly personal integrity of the Prophet Muhammad, and the divinity of the Qur'an, a holy book that more than a billion people, including American Muslims, hold dear to their hearts. In recent years, the West has invoked the freedom of speech to defend new assaults on Islam, including the Danish publication of cartoons of the Prophet. Unfortunately, the post-9/11 United States, where attacks on the Qur'an are a relatively new phenomenon, is in the process of adopting the medieval custom.
Over the centuries, Western Europe has used various theological, literary, and popular justifications to sustain its medieval custom. In nurturing this custom, however, the West stands alone. Africans, Asians, and Eastern Europeans, rarely participate in desecrations of the Qur'an. The Chinese and Hindus, while celebrating their own religious and metaphysical traditions, have generally refrained from disrespecting the Qur'an. The Western contempt for the Qur'an, however, refuses to abate even though the West itself has undergone a radical transformation from medieval religiosity to modern secularism.
This commentary provides a brief historical insight into the medieval custom of desecrating the Qur'an and argues that the United States should resist the custom that sows the seeds of hatred, provokes violence, and barricades a meaningful dialogue between the West and Islam. The commentary also proposes that the United States must find legal ways to prevent desecrations of the Qur'an.
During the Middle Ages, the West frequently demonized the Qur'an on the basis of hearsay because the Qur'an was unavailable in vernacular languages. The first English translation of the Qur'an appeared in 1649 without a named translator, publisher, or printer. Anticipating hostility, the preface defended the translation saying that the ugliness of the Qur'an would enhance the beauty of the Gospels, for the Qur'an is, "without head or tail ... confused, contradictory in many things, written in rude language, consisting of lies and useless follies." This medieval conception of the Qur'an is deeply etched in the West.
In 1736, Voltaire, the celebrated French belletrist, wrote a five-act play Mahomet to highlight the depravity of Islam, and perhaps all religions. A few years later, however, Voltaire revised his views and appreciated the Qur'an for removing idolatry. In the past few decades, new Western scholarship promoted a sensational thesis that the Qur'an is a fraudulent book concocted centuries after the Prophet's death, projected back in time, and falsely attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. This thesis was later retracted by the authors.
Western artists also contribute to desecrations of the Qur'an. In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Van Gogh produced a short film, called Submission, to highlight the subjugation of women that the Qur'an allegedly advocates. The film shows nude women wearing see-through veils with Arabic verses of the Qur'an etched on their bodies, insinuating that the Qur'an perpetuates their lack of freedom. An infuriated Moroccan murdered Van Gogh. While condemning the murder, another filmmaker opined, "Longtime readers of Van Gogh's weekly column in the Dutch newspaper "Metro" know very well that his intention was not to reform male chauvinism, but rather to express crude bigotry."
In the post 9/11 United States, the Qur'an is a prime target. In 2007, the information obtained from the FBI files revealed that Guantanamo prison guards threw the Qur'an in the toilet to torture Muslim detainees. The so-called experts on terrorism frequently cite verses of the Qur'an to argue that the Qur'an inspires violence against Jews and Christians. This April, Pastor Jones accused the Qur'an of fomenting terrorism and put the Qur'an on trial. In this mock trial held inside a church in Florida, a jury heard the evidence and found the Qur'an guilty. Upon conviction, the Qur'an was punished by being burned in a fire. Pastor Jones seeks shelter under the First Amendment to defend his odious expressive conduct.
Questionable Expressive Conduct
In the language of law, Qur'an burning would be an expressive conduct. The First Amendment is generous in protecting oral and written word. It is less so with respect to expressive conduct. The First Amendment shelters expressive conduct if it does not threaten to disturb the peace. The United States Supreme Court declined to outlaw the burning of an American flag because, "no disturbance of the peace actually occurred or threatened to occur."
The flag precedent does not apply because Qur'an burning is an expressive conduct that incites actual violence. So far Qur'an burning has produced instantaneous violence outside the United States. Given the presence of a growing population of American Muslims, Qur'an burning threatens domestic peace. Media and blog invectives may have forced Justice Stephen Breyer to retract his otherwise sound intuition that the First Amendment would not protect Qur'an burning.
Invoking their constitutional right, American Muslims should petition the United States Congress for a redress of grievances. They must demand constitutionally sound legislation that outlaws desecrations of the Qur'an. For Congress, such legislation will demonstrate to American Muslims that the United States is prepared to break away from the medieval custom of assaulting the dignity of the Qur'an. It will also send a powerful message to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and the entire Muslim world, that the U.S. is neither Islamophobic, nor anti-Islamic, a move that can undermine terrorist threats to homeland security.
To their credit, Western European nations have adopted anti-hate statutes, which would proscribe burning of the Qur'an. A few days ago, the British government arrested a Welsh politician who allegedly burned a copy of the Qur'an. The British government has also banned Pastor Jones from entering the United Kingdom.