I’m assuming you’ve heard of Terry Jones.  He’s a pastor for the Christian Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, and in the summer of last year he threatened to burn a bunch of Korans on the anniversary of the 9/11/01 attacks.  Not surprisingly, the world exploded in righteous outrage at the blatant and ignorant Islamophobia that they perceived as coming from him.  Far-right Christians were mad because it made them look bad, politicians were mad because the people were mad, moderates across the board were mad because they think that anything that’s sacred to anyone shouldn’t be messed with for exactly that reason, and Muslims were mad because they get mad at virtually any insult to anything Islam-related.  Terry ended up not burning the Korans, until just recently when he put one “on trial” and then burned it.  He didn’t really tell anyone, and it wasn’t news until a group of Muslims, outraged over the act and egged on by their imams, attacked a UN embassy in Afghanistan and killed 14 people.

Enter Roger Cohen.

Cohen wrote a piece in the New York Times on Monday entitled “Religion Does Its Worst,” and he makes the all-too-common mistake of overreacting and blaming the wrong people for this.  I was going to write a separate post, but this piece addresses all the points I was going to address, so I’ll just walk through his.

So Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who organized a Koran burning on March 20, wanted “to stir the pot.” Mission accomplished. Perhaps he’d care to explain himself to the family of Joakim Dungel, a 33-year-old Swede slaughtered at the U.N. mission in Mazar-i-Sharif by Afghans whipped into frenzy through Jones’s folly.

No.  It is not up to Jones to explain himself, and he owes no one an explanation.  What he did may have been immature, but it’s not illegal and I personally don’t think it’s even wrong.  Jones holds no responsibility for the deaths of the people in Afghanistan, any more than Sarah Palin does for the Gabrielle Giffords shooting.  Anyone has the right to read or worship or burn any book they want, no matter what it means to anyone else.

On reflection, no, there’s nothing Jones can explain to Dungel’s family, or the other U.N. staffers murdered. Jones is not in the explanation business. He’s a zealot. How else to describe a Christian who interprets his faith not as grounded in love and compassion but as a mission to incite hatred toward Islam?

Again, that’s not his responsibility.  What’s he supposed to say, “sorry that a bunch of ferociously irrational people had a massive and indefensible overreaction to the empty gesture I made and killed several people totally unrelated to me or anything I’m involved in”?  Don’t be ridiculous.  I’m not saying he’s a nice man, but the fault is NOT on Jones.

And who are you to tell Jones what his faith should be grounded in?  The Phelps family thinks the Internet was invented so they could yell vitriolic and inarticulate things at gays.  The Pope thinks he’s the only perfect human being on Earth, and the literal voice of God.  According to Catholic tradition, anything the Pope decrees is divine law, disobedience to which is punishable by eternal damnation.
This man thinks he is the infallible vicar of Christ on earth. He is wrong.
You think Christianity is grounded in love and compassion?  You clearly haven’t read the book.  And don’t tell me that all the bad stuff is in the Old Testament and Jesus fixed everything.  I know this is tangential, but here’s a few tidbits from Jesus himself.
“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” – Luke 14:26

That’s nice.  Don’t worry about your family or even your life, don’t worry about giving your own father a proper burial, just follow Jesus.

“If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.” – John 15:6

If that’s compassion then I’ve been using the word wrong.  What happened to forgiveness and all that crap?  I guess that only works on people who are willing—nay, eager—to live a life of abject servitude.  Didn’t Jesus come to bring peace?

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.  For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.  And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.  He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” – Matthew 10:34-37

Oh.  Well that answers that.  But at least he wanted to spread the word, right?  Everyone deserves salvation, and no one’s beyond hope.  There’s always a chance.

“And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.  Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.” – Matthew 10:14-15
“And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.” – Matthew 12:32

That’s fucked up.  I’m almost positive that someone wil tell me I’m taking those verses out of context (like people do with Luke 19:27), but I’m reading that first one—Jesus telling his disciples how to spread the word—as essentially, “If people don’t like what you’re saying, fuck ’em, they’re going to die anyway.”  And let’s think about that second verse.  If you had to pick one act, just one, to be unforgivable, what would you pick?  Raping children?  Murder?  Genocide?  Slavery?  Wrong.  Worse than any of those things is the unthinkable crime of not acknowledging that Jesus is God.  In fact, it doesn’t matter one damn bit how good a person you are in your life; if you don’t believe, you’re not getting in.  Real fucking compassionate.

I did an image search for “compassion” and all this Jesus stuff came up. There must be some mistake.

But back to the article.  My point is that Jones, as a Christian, is absolutely justified in hating Muslims.  He’s not just allowed to, he has to.  It’s in the book.  To be tolerant of other religions is against the teachings of every major religion, so that kind of hatred is actually more logically defensible than the bullshit, limp-wristed ecumenicalism that most people pretend to practice.

As for the killing itself — whether by infiltrated Taliban insurgents or not — it was a heinous crime against innocent people and should be denounced throughout the Islamic world, in mosques and beyond. I’m still waiting.

About damn time.  Believe it or not, the ones responsible for the deaths of all those people are—and this may shock you—the ones who actually fucking killed them.  And once again, as with virtually every time someone does something unspeakable in the name of religion, the moderately religious are silent.  Do they think that the Muslim assailants were justified because their holy book was desecrated?  Maybe. If they do, then they’re wrong, but it’s possible.  But more likely is that those people don’t want to be seen as intolerant or god forbid, Islamophobic.  That term has become such a buzzword recently that no one’s really paid any attention to what it really means.  A phobia, in case you’ve forgotten, is an irrational fear.  Merriam-Webster calls it “inexplicable and illogical.”  The fear that if you speak out against Islam, you might die?  That’s rational, logical, and very very explicable (hint: it’s because Muslims keep killing people), and we’ve seen proof time and time again.  Salman Rushdie comes to mind, or the Pakistani politicians—MORE THAN ONE OF THEM—who were murdered for merely suggesting that the government consider decriminalizing blasphemy, or the Danish cartoonist, or the guys behind South Park, or the student who held a “Draw Mohammed Day” in Oregon of all places and received death threats as a result.  Fearing violent consequences from Islam for any kind of perceived infraction isn’t irrational, it’s pragmatic.

He [Staffan de Mistura] was right to call Jones’s Koran burning “insane and totally despicable;” he should have used the same words about the slaughter of his men. Not to do so was craven, a glaring omission.

You’re half right.  He should have said the same thing about the killers themselves, but not about Jones.  So he burned a book.  So fucking what?  It’s a book.  It was once trees and ink, and now it’s been arranged into one of billions of copies of some words first written down 1400 years ago.  It doesn’t mean anything by itself.  I have just as much a right to burn any book I want as I do to burn firewood, but does that mean Team Edward has the right to go on a killing spree if I burn Twilight?  No.  Let’s think about who’s really insane here.

I cannot wait until it’s fifteen years from now and these people are shunned for the fucking idiots they are.
An unrepentant Jones believes Islam and the Koran only serve “violence, death and terrorism.” That’s as dumb as equating Christianity with Psalm 137 that says the “little ones” of the enemy should be dashed against stones.

First of all, as much as I hate to defend the Bible, Psalm 137 is poetry, not a commandment.  No modern Bible scholar defends the Psalms as anything other than prose and song.  And second, that particular song is about a broken people lamenting the destruction of their home and subsequent taunting by the Babylonians.  I’m not saying infanticide in retaliation is justified, but at least there’s a reason.

Islam, on the other hand, holds that the Koran is the verbatim, inerrant, and unchanging word of God.  Every syllable of the Arabic is divine and beyond contestation.  And there are 109 verses in the Koran that call Muslims to war with non-believers.  Like this gem:

“The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land. Such will be their degradation in the world, and in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom” – 5:33

If you need more evidence, here’s a list of the violent verses in the Koran.  It’s 529 items long.  Here’s a similar selection picked out by Sam Harris.  Here’s a list of 17,050 fatal attacks committed in the name of Islam since 9/11/01 (for info on how those were picked and collected, go here).  Every time someone points out that there seem to be an awful lot of Islamic terrorists, someone else springs up to say, “no, no, Islam is a religion of peace.”  Then everyone else says, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”  Well that’s horseshit.  Islam is no more a religion of peace than Christianity is a religion of science.

Hint: it’s not.

Cohen then goes on to tell the story of Republicans who think sharia law is creeping into American culture.  He says those people are crazy reactionaries, and he’s right.  Sharia law is not creeping into American culture, and if it was, you’d fucking know it.  Take a browse through this list of sharia requirements and note that none of them is actually law in any part of the country.  So in that respect, Cohen’s on track.  Then he loses it again.

How is it consistent with religious faith to stir hatred and killing? And how can the Islamophobes, spreading poison, justify their grotesque caricature of Islam in the thinly veiled pursuit of political gain?

It’s absolutely consistent with religious faith to stir hatred and killing; that’s the whole goddamn problem. Allow me to clarify.  The four largest religions in the world right now are Christianity (and its many sub-sects), Judaism, Islam, and Mormonism.  Each of them uses some combination of holy books, and the aggregate of those four religion’s holy books is the Bible, Torah, Book of Mormon, Koran, Hadith, and Sira.  Now, morality can only be conferred by two means: example and instruction.  That means that the imperative to stir hatred and killing can only come from either a commandment or an example (one that is presented in a positive light) of hatred and/or killing, and every one of those books is fucking riddled with them.  Hell, even the holy book of the Mormons, who most of us think of as the pathetically awkward white-shirted people that wake you up on Saturday morning to be irritating, says murder is better than atheism.

“Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior? No? Well then I’m going to murder you HAHAHA only kidding. But seriously, we have to kill you.”

To close, I’ll fall back on paraphrasing Bill Maher’s recent analogy.  The type of Muslims who, not content to just seethe inwardly at the insults leveled by Terry Jones, will actually resort to killing completely unrelated people over it?  They’re like a violently alcoholic father.  And when dad loses his shit and takes a belt to the wife and kids, no one blames them for setting him off.  He didn’t beat the wife because she burned the meatloaf, he beat her because he’s a violent alcoholic.

But it’s not a perfect analogy.  Why?  Because just as some victims of domestic abuse will actually blame themselves, apologizing endlessly and making excuses for him and explaining to the nurse that they fell down the stairs again and trying to convince themselves that he really does love them after all, we in the West are pretending it’s our fault that a huge number of Muslims in the Middle East hate us.  We believe them when they assure us, over and over, that they wouldn’t do these things if we insensitive Westerners weren’t so darn mean to them.  We even turn on each other when the extremists do horrible things, wondering which of us could have made Daddy mad again.

But no one has the balls—when the belt comes out for the 17,000th time—to stand up and tell the people who think they can kill you for what you say to cut the shit.  Listen, we need to say.  No one has the right to live their life without being offended.  Jews don’t eat pork, but they don’t boycott Safeway for selling it.  They just don’t buy it.  Jehovah’s witnesses don’t celebrate birthdays, but they don’t go to Chuck E Cheese with “GOD HATES CELEBRATIONS” picket signs.  We know you’re not allowed to defame the Koran or depict Muhammed, but we are not like you.  We do not have to follow your rules.  We have the right to criticize your ideas and your values and your beliefs the same as any others, and you can complain about it all you want, but there your rights stop.  You cannot just kill or threaten to kill anyone who disagrees with you.

Many people are of the opinion that we should let foreign culture be, that their practices and customs are none of our business.  But these are not benign oddities we’re talking about, like how Europeans kiss each other on the cheek.  These are people who think—with “divine” textual support I might add; they didn’t just come up with this on their own—that it is their sacred duty to kill or convert all non-Muslims.  And it’s about time someone, preferably other, more moderate Muslims, told them to sit down and shut the fuck up.

6 Thoughts

  1. Fair point. What I meant, and should have specified, was monotheistic, holy-book-based religions. I don't think Buddhism and Hinduism (though responsible for their fair share of violence and absurdity) are really comparable to the others because they don't have the same kind of source to quote dogmatically as perfect and/or divine. That list, it's worth noting, doesn't actually have Mormonism on it, and the Mormon Church counts people among its members until they're 110, even if they're excommunicated or leave the church. Numbers are hard to come by, but what i was going for is the people that quote a book.

  2. As much as it pains me to say this, I think you a little off base. Personally, I think that burning books (even Twilight and its horribly-written ilk) is wrong. There is a level at which knowledge is sacred, even knowledge that might not actually be worth having (Bible, Koran, etc). In no way does this justify the murders in Afghanistan, but I would object to your contention that “What he did may have been immature, but it's not illegal and I personally don't think it's even wrong”. Excusing this BECAUSE he was burning the Koran is just as bad as condemning it because it is the Koran. Individual books should not be sacred, but as a whole, the knowledge they contain should be respected, at least in my view.

  3. I think you misunderstand me. I do think that ideas and knowledge are sacred, and—though I don't think the contents of the Koran count as “knowledge”—it is undoubtedly a collection of ideas or at LEAST a historical document. As such, it deserves preservation to the same degree as old Supreme Court rulings or Thomas Jefferson's letters or the original works of Shakespeare or the Rosetta Stone or the Dead Sea Scrolls or Hammurabi's Code or the cave paintings in France. But those things deserve preservation because the objects themselves are significant in their age. I would be outraged at the destruction of the original Gutenberg Bible, for example, because it's very old and is the first example of a printed book. But a copy of its contents is not more sacred than if I were to transcribe it myself on notebook paper.

    I'm not excusing it because it was a Koran. I'm excusing it because it's (as one friend put it) a Gideon Koran. It's a generic copy, and as such is meaningless. For the same reason, I wouldn't object to burning the Barnes and Noble version of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Steinbeck, or the Constitution. The ideas are very important and massively influential in human history, but to say that burning a copy of the words is disrespectful is like saying that letting your parakeet poop on the newspaper is disrespectful to the columnists that produce that content.

    That's exactly what you said, as a matter of fact, in your last sentence. The individual book is not sacred.

    Now, on a pragmatic note, I don't think book-burning is a very good idea. The Nazis burned books to keep those ideas from getting out, and it didn't work at all. Jones burned a book to provoke a reaction, and it worked FAR too well (proving his point, as a matter of fact). It's not a productive or articulate or effective form of protest, but neither are picket signs and chanting and no one has a problem with those on a moral level.

    The point is that personally, I wouldn't do it. It's just childish. But to brand it as a universal moral crime to burn what is essentially just a photocopy is just patently absurd. Hope that makes sense.

  4. It does make sense, though I think that there is a lot of gray area between “we shouldn't burn books” and “burning books is OK as long as there are other copies somewhere else”. This particular issue, for me, seems to fall somewhere in that gray area.

    While in principal, the Koran should not provoke any more outrage than if I were to burn a copy of New Dawn (and sometimes I wish I could burn them all…), the fact that it is a sacred document to some people means that there will always be a group who will take offense, and might do so violently. This was of course exactly the reaction that Terry Jones was hoping to elicit. I do not think that those who actually killed those people should be let off or given any leniency simply because “some crazy guy in Florida pissed me off” but what Terry Jones did was unethical and intentionally destructive. Some blame should also be placed upon him.

  5. Why are we getting distracted with the burning book bit? The focus should be on multiple-murders as the go-to for being offended.

    It's 2 years after this was first published and things have, sadly, not improved. My friends ask why I'm being so 'militant' (read: expressing my views on FB and Twitter and sharing insights about religion when asked) about my atheism lately. I point out examples like this and retort “you wanna live in a world where THIS is the accepted norm?”

    Unfortunately, our 10-minute-attention-span means newsworthy pieces are often forgotten (if they even make it to a news station or paper). Luckily, (sarcasm obv.), the fanatics continue to push the literal boundaries of their chosen manuscripts, giving us an abundance of crazy to shake our heads at.


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