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Burning the Koran Again

15 April 2011

11:17 PM

15 April 2011

11:17 PM

Dan Hodges disagrees with me (and with Dan Hannan) and argues that, yes, we should definitely imprison people for burning books. Certainly if that book is the Koran. And perhaps other books too. Who knows where it will all end once you start?

Those who defend Quran-burning on the basis of free speech miss the point. […] This is an overt, conscious action, motivated by malign intent. It is not the product of open, free-spirited discourse, but an aggressive, premeditated provocation.

Nor is it actually speech. It’s not opening a dialogue or building an argument. Quite the opposite. It’s a deliberate act of destruction; the destruction of a dialogue and argument constructed by others. If you don’t like Islam, fine. Write a book about why. Don’t burn one.

Those who see the heavy hand of the law as a disproportionate response to this act of bibliophobia are themselves losing perspective.

It’s not just the action, it’s the consequences. We know what Quran-burning leads to. In the past couple of weeks it has resulted in innocent people being murdered and maimed. It’s increased the threat to British and western troops serving overseas. It’s boosted the Taliban and other terrorist organisations.

If our laws do not exist to prevent people from deliberately engaging in actions and activity that incite others to murder, propagate international terrorism and lay the seeds of civil disorder, what are they for?

We have laws to protect a book’s copyright. We have laws to protect the intellectual rights of the person who wrote and published it. But we shouldn’t have laws to prevent that book being treated in a manner that leads to half a dozen people being decapitated?

No we should not because we should not allow homicidal headcases on the far side of the world to determine the limits of what Britons may or may not be permitted to do in this, their own, country. Nor should one book enjoy this kind of privileged protection. Skipping down that road will lead to ever more burdensome restrictions on speech.

And it is speech just as flag-burning in Tehran, London or Washington is speech too. In the comments to his post, Mr Hodges says that depending on "context" he’s in favour of criminalising flag-burning too so I suppose his illiberalism is at least consistent. But as a general rule I can’t approve of imprisoning people because they hold and express in public reprehensible views. Even when those views are used by other dreadful people to commit their own dreadful acts.

Nor am I impressed by the idea of regulating speech by divining intent. I’m sure it is the case that most of those who feel compelled to burn a Koran (or any other book) do so with "malign intent" but I can easily imagine any number of other scenarios in which their actions might be motivated by quite different concerns. In this instance, for sure, there’s a low malignancy and craving for publicity at work but, frankly, I do not trust the police and prosecution services to draw distinctions between motivations for acts that might offend someone somewhere and this being so would rather the malicious were protected so that, in the end, we are all protected.

Arguing that Person A must be held liable for Person B’s unhinged response to Person A’s action is troublesome. Let’s go back to the Rushdie affair which, in some respects is where it all began anyway, and remember that there were plenty of people on both the "left" and "right" who thought Rushdie bore some responsibility for the violence and murder that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses. Rushdie, it was said, should have known better than to provoke this reaction. How could he be surprised or shocked by the violent response to his blasphemous book? Of course murdering one of his translators was taking things too far but in some way the author had to consider his own actions too. If he’d not written the book none of this unpleasantness would have happened, you know.

Tommyrot then and tommyrot now and I trust Mr Hodges would agree with me. Yet the logic of his argument, I think, leads to this unhappy destination and it does so by privileging those who claim to have been offended and treating that offence as reasonable when  doing so is actually capitulating to intolerance and fanaticism. If this means that we must on occasion defend other stupid and intolerant fanatics then so be it. Such are the wages of the open society that, whatever its shortcomings, remains our greatest achievement.

Of course Rushdie is a much more sympathetic figure than BNP goons (though the Satanic Verses is a dreadful novel) but their vileness does not mean they forfeit the rights you or I or other nice people would insist upon for ourselves. Slippery slopes exist and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise.

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