The proposed Quran-burning spectacle, which was planned by an extremist Florida pastor for this year’s anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and then canceled due to overwhelming opposition from the American mainstream, is an excellent example of how the First Amendment protects free speech in the United States.
The planned action would have been gratuitous, offensive, blasphemous and almost unanimously opposed by other Americans. But it was also absolutely protected under American law. A very large body of legal rulings over many years has established that the symbolic burning of American flags in protest against government policies is protected speech under the First Amendment. The same would apply to burning the Quran, or anything else that is symbolic, no matter how deeply it offends some people’s sensibilities.
On the other hand, the government’s response, which ultimately proved decisive, was not to attempt to censor or restrain this provocative act, but rather to employ its own free speech rights. Senior officials repeatedly and pointedly insisted that the burning, along with being deeply offensive, was actually dangerous and, most immediately, might place the lives of American troops, particularly in Afghanistan, in danger. The turning point was probably a phone call to the pastor by Robert Gates, in which the defense secretary reportedly insisted that this would be an act that might cost American lives. In other words, the government appealed to shame and patriotism in dissuading the preacher from going forward with his highly provocative plan.
This was a good outcome, but it certainly wasn’t optimal. One hopes in vain to live in a society in which extremists avoid provoking each other in a counterproductive and obnoxious manner, but every country has its fools. The appropriate response, but one that unfortunately doesn’t seem available at the moment, is for everyone to collectively shrug at a weirdo burning a large pile of paper on a historic anniversary. So what?
However, religious people often don’t take this view. But if something like the Quran is the word of God or is holy in some meaningful way, it doesn’t require angry mobs to defend it from nut cases. Demagogues can’t resist tapping into potential outrage in order to promote their agendas by whipping up emotions. And, it has to be said, a violent response to provocative and obnoxious speech is totally unjustifiable.
It is extremely important that the American mainstream was able to stop this provocation by persuasion, rather than by employing some kind of enforced restraint that would have jeopardized free speech. Martin Peretz, the publisher of The New Republic magazine, proposed seeking a court injunction to prevent the Quran burning. Commentator Pat Buchanan went further, suggesting that the preacher be arrested on spurious charges of “sedition.” Such actions would have not only been unconstitutional, they would have undermined the single most important freedom protected under American law, which, if upheld, would have effectively established new coercive powers of censorship.
Any offended Muslims who would have welcomed such moves would have been seriously misguided. In the long run, religious, ethnic and other minorities in any society invariably pay a higher price for a loss of liberty than majorities do, for obvious reasons.
It’s not an intuitively easy concept to grasp, but the only freedom that really counts is the freedom to be wrong. If virtually everyone agrees that something makes sense, it need not be protected by absolute guarantees of personal liberty. It’s only when an action or concept seems obviously and completely wrong, even immoral, to large majorities and social mainstreams that it requires a robust constitutional defense. The important point that the Quran burnings might have cost American and other lives was an argument based on dissuasion, not an instance of using the power of the state to prevent the burnings. If one accepts the principle that speech can be restrained because of a nebulous and potential social harm, it’s hard to see where, logically, that kind of censorship would become invalid.
Yet the controversy does demonstrate that there is a powerful rise in Islamophobia in American culture. Angry opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” and to numerous mosque-building projects around the United States, as well as other disturbing developments, illustrate there is more Islamophobic sentiment in the country today than there was in the first two or three years following the 9/11 attacks.
There is still a great deal of resistance to this bigotry on the part of mainstream American society, but the Islamophobic narrative has gained considerable cultural and political ground in the past few years. This is largely a function of the reinforcement of the idea that Islam and Muslims in the United States are a physical or cultural threat to American society, or both, independent of any actual events.
If Islamophobia was essentially a reaction to terrorist outrages and other provocations, it would have been at its zenith in the first years following the 9/11 attacks, not nine years later with no similar incidents occurring in the intervening period.
Narratives drive the reception and interpretation of events, not the other way around. The US government and the American mainstream may have prevented the Quran-burning spectacle, but the evidence that the Islamophobic narrative is gaining ground in American cultural and political life is irrefutable. The only rational response is for American Muslims to work with their fellow citizens to create and promote alternative narratives, which will be based on the same free speech rights that would have protected the aborted Quran burnings.