King's Evangelical Divinity School

9 September 2010

Burning the Koran: What It Tells Us

A story quickly moving up the news agenda in recent days is how a small church in Florida plans to burn copies of the Koran on the ninth anniversary of 9/11. The church's pastor maintains the event is designed as a protest against extreme Islam (rather than Islam as a whole), as well as drawing attention to how the U.S. is in danger of appeasing extremists within its own borders. However, the pastor and church have come under intense pressure to cancel the event, notably from world leaders and other high profile figures, but at a press conference yesterday the church maintained the event would go ahead as planned.

This is a fascinating story because it tells us all sorts of things - both explicit and implicit - about the world we live in. First, it demonstrates the power of 24-hour rolling news which has ensured pretty well everyone across the globe knows about it, together with how capturing the media's attention has in itself now become a valuable form of currency which if exploited efficiently through a stunt can command massive media attention. Thus, however you view them, a small, relatively insignificant group has played the media card masterfully, capturing media attention across the world. Ironically, many of the world leaders who condemn the proposed burning ceremony have only themselves to blame, contributing by their involvement in pushing the story to the very top of the news agenda. After all, when the likes of President Obama, Angela Merkel, Tony Blair, the Secretary General of the UN, and even the Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, condemn the proposed ceremony, describing it as abhorrent and urging for it to be cancelled, it is inevitable the rest of us wil hear about it pretty quickly.

Reactions to the burning event also tells us a great deal about Western society, the Islamic world, and the relationship between the two. For its part, few doubt that if the burning of copies of the Koran goes ahead there will be a huge conflagration across the Islamic world, including demonstrations, rallies, and inevitably violence and intense hatred towards the West. A Taliban spokesman has already opined (somewhat unsophisticatedly) that if it goes ahead it will prove the entire West is out to get Islam. Extreme Muslims seem incapable of understanding the concept of free speech, that the views and actions (providing they are legal) of individuals and groups across Western society does not necessarily equate to such views being replicated or endorsed across Western society as a whole. Meanwhile, it is a bit rich for some Islamists to get wound up over this issue when, for example, whole local Christian communities have been slaughtered in countries such as Pakistan or northern Nigeria at the hands of extreme Muslims without so much as a whisper of protest from within their own circles. For their part, those moderate Muslims who are (completely understandably) deeply offended about being tarred with the same brush as the extremists within their midsts might want to take some time to reciprocate, recognising that the actions and views of a small church in Florida do not necessarily reflect the views of Christians as a whole, and certainly not Western society in toto.

As far as the West is concerned, the plan to burn copies of the Koran (or rather, reactions to it) tells us quite a lot about Western society, together with its relationship with the wider Islamic world. First (and I never really thought, as an Englishman, I'd say this), it shows how the U.S. has overtaken the U.K. as a champion of free speech. Quite simply, such an event would not now ever be permitted to take place here; the authorities would find some way of banning it somehow. Not that I want Britain necessarily to become synonymous with burning different religions' sacred literature, but we've come a long way from freedom of speech to a top-down society which quite frankly seeks to control the very things we say, and indeed even think. Actually, they're trying very hard to stop it in the U.S. too, with the pressure upon the church becoming, arguably, unbearable (by the way, I'm not convinced the burning of copies of the Koran will actually go ahead). But nominally at least the U.S. constitution permits such a demonstration of free speech, and despite intense pressure from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, U.S. commander of forces in Afghanistan General Petraeus, and today even President Obama himself, if the event is called off it will ultimately be the church and pastor who decide.

But purported North American commitment to free speech aside, the fact that such leading American officials, together with condemnation by various world leaders, tells us something else. It tells us about the intense fear of Islamic radicalism within the West and the perceived damage it is capable of causing. For example, General Petraeus has said if the burning goes ahead it will put American soldiers' lives in Afghanistan in mortal danger (though I'm not sure this argument works particularly well, as any foreign soldier in Afghanistan is a target already). Meanwhile, Western politicians fear some of the fallout experienced by the Danish government over the cartoon protests some time ago. They also fear losing trade with the Islamic world, as well as the breakdown of fragile alliances with Islamic countries. I am quite sure, too, they fear uprisings among the substantial Islamic communities across countries in Europe and elsewhere. Ironically, Western Muslims, many of whom have experienced their own Enlightenment in some form or other, while distressed and dismayed by the proposed burning of the Koran, are probably more likely to respond to the event (if it goes ahead) pragmatically and moderately than Western leaders give them credit. Just yesterday I listened to an educated U.S.Muslim leader who expressed his views far more eloquently and reasonably than some I've heard on the other side of the debate.

But it is the feared backlash in places like the Middle East and Pakistan which the press is preparing to report widely, together with the fact that Western leaders rarely respond to the suffering of Christians in some Muslim lands which is, I think, why this issue is capturing the attention of some Christians. They feel let down when the Islamic world defends its own and responds vociferously and even violently to, for example, cartoons of Mohammed, and now the burning of the Koran, while Christians in some of the countries where these protests will take place suffer utter misery, suffering and persecution, and even death because of their faith, yet we rarely hear Western voices spoken out on their behalf. I am not convinced all Christians critical of Islam are even necessarily driven solely by an anti-Islamic agenda, but rather it is a partial reaction to Western liberal elitism which is inherently anti-Christian and pro-Islamic. Whether banning Christmas at the town hall level or rewarding Islamic extremism by brushing any talk of radicalism under the carpet, it is moderate Muslims who suffer the consequences, blamed for the rise in Islamic extremism while Christians experience official state prejudice. In short, the Islamists are not the only ones to blame for negative stereotypes of Western Muslims; some of our secular leaders also have a lot to answer for, using Islam to curb the historically influential societal role of Christianity and then laying the blame elsewhere. So often, nonplussed Muslims are blamed for secularised "Winterfest" denials of Christmas when the real culprit is the local city or town council. Aguably, such dismay expressed by some Christians towards their faith is what is partially driving the Florida church and pastor in question. Alternatively, if this is an unashamed, publicity-seeking stunt, it is such dismay which drives a begrudging, if somewhat embarassed support from some Christians, many of whom are angry at Western prejudice towards their fellow believers, as well as the plight of Christians at the hands of Islamists in some Muslim lands.

Which leads me to my final point, one final thing I believe the plan to burn copies of the Koran tells us. I am a passionate believer in free speech and I get rather irritated at bullies telling us what we can or can't say. People insult Christianity and the Lord Jesus Christ all the time, which we have simply learned to accept and get on with our lives. I just wish it was a level playing field, and free speech went both ways. But it doesn't, of course, with Christians seen as fair game. After all, Jesus details how we will inevitably be reviled and hated for His namesake, while urging us to turn the other cheek (Muslim sensitivies, on the other hand, are treated with kid gloves because no one wants to attract the ire of a radicalised Islamist).

Unfortunately, some Christians today have forgotten Jesus' instructions on this matter, instead drawing upon a worldy mentality of direct action and "standing up for our rights". Unfortunately, not heeding the Lord's words causes all manner of problems. Consider how turning the other cheek is a witness to those who persecute us. Moreover, when we resist natural human impulses to stand up for our rights, seek venegeance and demonstrate anger, and instead obey Jesus' instructions, it strongly influences how people perceive Christians. In this particular instance, the misconceived action of the pastor and his congregation has influenced how many people across the world view Christians (it didn't help to see his handgun on his desk next to his Bible). But perhaps particularly importantly, it puts the lives of Christians in Muslim lands at risk, while it inevitably makes the task of evangelising and sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Muslim lands that much more difficult. After all, it is disrespectful and deeply and unnecessarily offends everyday Muslims who need to hear the Gospel. Why offend unnecessarily? Naturally, we all struggle with the flesh, we become indignant with the injustices we see against fellow Christians in some lands. But the Christian way, as taught to us by our Lord, is very different from a typically human approach. Indeed, some will perceive it as weakness (which indeed is why some Christian communities suffer dreadful persecution), but the fact is others will be massively affected by our witnes and come to a true and saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Thus, I am not convinced Saturday's planned event contributes to that goal.


Sky is just now reporting that the pastor at the centre of the storm may halt the burning ceremony if asked personally by President Obama to do so. As stated above, I wasn't convinced this would go ahead. Tricky for Obama, though. He will become the inevitable target of those for whom free speech is paramount. Doesn't help that he defended the 9/11 mosque project or that a large segment of the U.S. population remains convinced he is a crypto-Muslim.


Anonymous said...

WOW! thanks for this post Calvin. There are so many points to consider and this issue is multi-faceted on so many levels.

I just wonder how Muslim extremists will view this change of heart from this pastor?

My head is spinning with all of this.

I last read that the Pastor has changed his mind again!

You are right when you say that there isn't a level playing field. And THAT is the problem.

Chris said...

Calvin, I must say this is an excellent article and want to thank you for bringing to mind Jesus' words about turning the other cheek, and must confess that I had great difficulty in this area until today, Jesus' way is definitely the best way, thanks again.
And, yes there is a lot to think about concerning the 'clash of civilizations'
Let's hope more jaw jaw instead of war war, I think Churchill said something like that.

Stephen Kneale said...

A great post Calvin.

The sad irony of this situation is Christians primarily support free speech in order to continue preaching the gospel. By stoutly defending this action, in the name of free speech, the gospel is only impeded. This leaves the Christian with a dilemma: Support the action, on grounds of free speech, potentially damaging our witness to onlookers. Or, reject the action on the grounds it hampers the gospel and undermine the freedom of speech we need to preach the gospel?

Perhaps we should defer to the Voltaire principle (which Voltaire didn't say) - I disagree with what you say, but I will defend... your right to say it - It would just be nice if this same courtesy were extended to all Christians (rather than only always coming from the same side).

Anonymous said...

I get the impression that the Koran burning was halted because of fears for allied troops and Christians in muslim lands, which is of concern to all of us.

It was not really about free speech because no one has said they wished to ban the Koran altogether, just to make a 'statement' about another religion by burning a few books.

The irony is that we are told by Islamists and the liberal left that Islam is a religion of peace, and we should respect their holy book, but it is backed up by threats of violence from some quarters. Secularists have long been running scared of Islam for these reasons and apply double standards to Christians as a result.

Consider this opinion piece in the Guardian - "Burning the Qur'an: All faiths must fight against the forces of bigotry"

It states that "We should not tolerate the antics of people such as Pastor Jones" - Which is really a call for intolerance against Christians - and calls his aborted stunt "vicious". But since when is burning books vicious? Threatening violence against people is vicious, but - oh - we must say that Islam is a religion of peace.

Now I don't think causing deliberate offence is the right Christian approach for the gospel, but why can't we call a spade a spade anymore? Must we now couch all of our discourse in terms of double speak.
Andrew Sibley

Steve Kneale said...

Andrew, you say this isn't about free speech and then go on to show in your own comment that it is! The Guardian article you highlight illustrates the point - 'We should not tolerate the antics of people such as Pastor Jones' - ergo we should not allow him to freely speak against Islam nor should we allow him to freely express this by burning copies of the Koran.

You are right, however, to highlight that in 'respecting' the feelings of muslims, and not burning their sacred text, the right of Pastor Jones to freely express himsef is curtailed (whether we agree with how he chooses to express himself or not). Moreover, the violent outbursts of Islam in response to the proposed action show that, as you point out, islam is less peaceful than many like to pretend (I'm reminded of the banner at an islamic rally, held with no irony whatsoever, which read: 'behead those who say islam is a violent religion').

Nevertheless, this issue does revolve around free speech and the dilemma still remains. Do we support free speech/expression, regardless of the detriment to the gospel, or; do we reject free speech/expression in this instance, a principle vital to sharing the gospel, because the action is detrimental to the gospel itself? Personally, I think the correct response would be to support Pastor Jones' right whilst rejecting his proposed action.