I don't have much sympathy for the men who burned copies of the Koran in a pub car park in Gateshead, and I suspect they weren’t motivated by high-minded rationalist scepticism. But the fact that they were arrested for their actions worries me. Still more concerning is the fact that the charge was inciting racial hatred. As I’ve grown weary of saying, Islam is a religion, not a ‘race’, and to conflate the two is to play into the hands of militants and fundamentalists who seek to shut down criticism of their faith.
As in a number of recent cases involving supposed religious ‘offence’, it looks like the authorities didn’t like what was going on, were worried about what it might lead to, and then cast around for a law which roughly fitted the ‘crime’. The religious hatred laws seemed not to cover this kind of eventuality, so why not try the race hatred laws instead?
As for the argument that to burn a book was deliberately to ‘incite’ hatred or violence, we’ve been here before, I think. The best response to this I’ve read was from Kenan Malik, in a comment on this post:
I agree that Qur’an burners are mindless idiots. I disagree that it would have been OK for them to have been arrested for ‘incitement’, even had they done it front of a mosque. There are two notions of incitement that all too often get conflated. The first is incitement in the sense of directly persuading others to commit violence. The second is incitement in the sense of causing offence that provokes others to be violent. Incitement in the first sense should be illegal. Incitement in the second sense should not.
It is incitement in the second sense that has been one of the prime drivers behind censorship in recent years – people being prevented from doing something because it might cause offence and hence provoke others into violence. Think of the debates around Bezhti or Fitna or The Jewel of Medina.
Take Wilders. He is a reactionary idiot and Fitna a crude anti-Muslim film designed to provoke. That is immaterial. He was originally banned from Britain because, in the government’s words, his ‘statements about Muslims and their beliefs… would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK.’ But Wilders was a threat to public security only insofar as some of his critics may have been provoked enough to respond with violence. But then they, not Wilders, should have been held responsible. It would have been neither logical nor just to have penalized Wilders not for his actions but for actions others may have taken against him.
Remember that many held Salman Rushdie responsible for the violence that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses because he ‘must have known the offence it would cause’. Indeed Matthew Taylor made the very argument when I gave a talk last year at the RSA. Most of us would say that it is immaterial whether or not Rushdie knew the offence he would cause. Those who caused the violence, and only they, were responsible for that violence, however provoked they might have felt. The same goes for any violence that might follow the showing of Fitna or the burning of the Qur’an.
Burning the Qur’an in front of a mosque is clearly close to the line. Its intention would obviously be simply to provoke, and one could argue that it is similar to shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. There is, however, a difference. Shouting ‘fire’ in a theatre when there is no fire is to induce people to take a certain action (to rush for the exit) that is rational, inevitable but will cause mayhem. The theatre goers are not responsible for the mayhem, the person who shouted ‘fire’ is. Burning a Qur’an in front of a mosque will undoubtedly provoke a response from believers. But in this case the believers have a choice in how they react, and so are responsible if they respond in a violent way. Even in this case, in other words, it is vital that we keep distinct the two different notions of incitement.
Mind you, we should be grateful to the masked goons in Gateshead for raising some interesting philosophical and theological questions. There was a brief flutter of debate on Twitter, for example, about whether burning an English translation of the Koran (as seems to have happened in this case) was as sacrilegious as destroying one in the original Arabic. If, as Muslims believe, the Koran is sacred because it contains the actual, directly-dictated words of God, then maybe versions in other languages are somehow less inspired? Doesn’t the fact that Muslims pray in Arabic confirm this literalism?
Another Twitterer wondered if deleting a copy of the Koran from his Kindle would be as offensive as burning a printed version, and whether it would similarly count as a criminal offence. Obviously a joke, but one that again raises questions about what counts as ‘sacred’, and which points up the absurdity of religious literalism and fundamentalism.