Thursday, 16 September 2010

Some Thoughts On Book-Burning

Whilst I am in the blogging frame of mind, there is a further issue which has been dominating headlines recently, and which set my thoughts in motion. I refer to the furore over Pastor Terry Jones and his proposed burning of 1000 qurans in Florida. Whilst, the majority have seen through Mr Jones as the attention-seeking nonentity and charlatan that he undoubtedly is, there have been many voices raised in defence of his right to do as he pleases with respect to the qurans, which he has presumably acquired legitimately.

The arguments made are generally that in America he has the freedom to express his religious belief, and exercise his freedom of speech and expression, as he wishes, especially in regard to his own property, and that such rights should be sacrosanct. Furthermore, it has been argued that no-one has the right not to be offended by someone else's lawful actions. These arguments are true - up to a point. However, having the freedom to exercise your rights does not make it either sensible or responsible to do so.

Should individuals, such as western troops serving in, or tourists visiting, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries suffer harm as a result of a quran burning, then the fault certainly lies with the perpetrators of such an act, and not with anyone burning the book. Yet to go ahead, knowing that such acts are possible, requires that there is an imperative that outweighs such potential harm to others. Some may regard that imperative to simply be the free exercise of their rights, yet I think most would look for more than that.

Terry Jones asserts that he wished to do so to "send a message" to the Muslim world. However, he seems incapable of articulating that message clearly beyond some vague platitudes about setting down a marker, an assertion that "Islam is of the devil", and a late and spurious attempt to link it to the proposed building of an Islamic community centre in the vicinity of the former World Trade Center site. If you're going to put other peoples lives at potential risk, you ought to have something better and more concrete than that.

As a European with a good knowledge of history, I am acutely aware of, and deeply discomforted by, our past record with regard to book-burnings. The Inquisition, Witchfinders, Hitler, Stalin, and Franco are just the best known of those who have indulged in this practice, and it is hard to think of a single example of a case of book-burning which has reflected well on the perpetrators or their beliefs. It is almost exclusively the act of the bully, the tyrant and the anti-intellectual.

Whilst it is difficult to rationalise my opposition to the simple act, rather than to the many past perpetrators, nonetheless I can not dispel that discomfort. No doubt the ideas essentially exist independent of the material copy of the book burned, and will continue to flourish, providing it is not the only copy. I am not similarly troubled by the idea, suggested elsewhere in the blogosphere, of downloading a copy of the quran to an e-reader and deleting that to convey the same "message". No, it is something about the symbolism of the act of burning which troubles me. Perhaps it is the similarity to the past burning of heretical people and not just heretical texts, or maybe it is the visceral nature of consigning something to the flames. It is somehow satisfying that Pastor Jones was ultimately stopped in his tracks by the local fire code.

There is also the feeling, that I embrace, that there are far more effective ways to deal with texts that we deem evil, incorrect or misguided. Far better, I would suggest, to read the book, understand its flaws, and then expose them to the metaphorical heat of our thoughtful and crafted criticism and ridicule, because, though the ideas will survive the burning of the physical book, they will not so easily escape a well-worded and argued demolition of their fallacies, and a rebuttal of their justifications.

I do agree with some supporters of the quran-burning that the so-called sacred text should be treated no differently from any other book, and I do not regard the undoubted harm that this, and other religious texts, have done justifies its singling out for burning either. It is precisely because of that harm that it is important that we are familiar with its contents, and the fallacies and untruths within it. How else are we to counter it, and other such books, religious or otherwise?

I have never understood the concept of an actual physical book being inherently sacred. I do not think that many, if any, Christians, Muslims or adherents of any other mainstream religion would regard the paper as having intrinsic sanctity, or the ink, so is it to be asserted that it is the specific pattern and order of the shapes, in the form of letters, printed in ink, onto the paper of the pages, which somehow magically confers sanctity on the physical entity of the finished book? This is clearly supernatural nonsense! The sanctity only exists in the mind of the beholder, and is not intrinsic to the physical article. As such, can a non-believer profane it?

Indeed, it is in the Quaker tradition that we regard no book as inherently sacred; not even the bible amongst Christian Quakers. The earliest Quakers, though, undoubtedly, almost exclusively devout Christians, and avid readers and quoters of the bible, a book that may have been the only one they had access to, did not regard it as inherently sacred. Early Quaker luminaries, such as George Fox and William Penn, often read widely, and included many works of philosophy, science and religious criticism amongst their libraries, as well as the quran and other non-Christian religious texts. They considered the search for truth and enlightenment to be a constant and unbounded one.

Modern Quakers look for wisdom and guidance in a wide array of sources, Christian or from other faiths, religious or secular, and have continued the long tradition of embracing science and reason. They are also generally all too aware of the many fallacies, contradictions and untruths contained in so many of the "great" spiritual works. And you can be pretty sure that Quakers aren't in the habit of burning books!


  1. So, someone made a brilliant point to me today. When the Taliban burn down girls schools, when the Sunnis bomb Shia mosques, when car bombs go off around the Islamic world, do the perpetrators of these acts make sure no qurans are in the area before they attack? or is it alright for them to set fire to qurans, or blow them to pieces? Do they have some special dispensation? Or is it only an outrage when non-Muslims do it?

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