President Karzai of Afghanistan has called for the Obama administration to condemn the recent Koran-burning in Florida by Pastor Wayne Sapp. The symbolic immolation of the book led to riots that left 22 dead. Obama has obliged by describing it as an act of “extreme intolerance and bigotry”. But Karzai wants Obama to go further and “bring those responsible to justice”.
It is not clear what that would mean in the US. First Amendment free speech protection doesn’t discriminate on the basis of the content of speech short of its posing a direct threat to others. Offensive expression, including symbolic flag- or Koran-burning, is just as protected as liberal political speech-making.
To take the most famous example, the neo-Nazis who wanted to march through Skokie in Illinois in 1977, where many Holocaust survivors lived, had as much right to express their views as anyone else. Controversially, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sprang to the their defence.
In that case the marchers, having secured their free speech rights in court, were persuaded to protest elsewhere. Only last year Pastor Terry Jones also backed down from this threat to burn Korans on the 9/11 anniversary, though most experts agreed that if he had gone ahead with the burning on private property he would have been unlikely to have committed any crime.
But sometimes offensive protestors follow through and make their point as threatened in a way that triggers strong reactions. In the case of Pastor Wayne Sapp, that’s what happened, and with fatal consequences thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, where another group of intolerant people took violent and utterly inexcusable “revenge” on 22 people.
Free speech issues are rarely straightforward. Some people would like to think they are, but they aren’t. The key question is always where a society wants to draw the line, not whether there should be a line at all. But I believe strongly that explosive reactions on the part of the offended shouldn’t determine where that line is drawn.
Such a reaction would give the power to circumscribe the limits of everyone’s freedom to those who have the angriest voices, and are swiftest to resort to violence. Instead we need to protect the freedom to criticise religion and religions, both in words and symbolic actions, as a fundamental right.
Put simply, 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. We do not want to go back to the Dark Ages of blasphemy laws, or modern equivalents of them.