Pastor Terry Jones has cancelled his Quran burning, and while I take a sigh of relief, I believe that we can understand more about our roles as humans and Americans from the incident. The act that Mr. Jones would commit was vile, ignorant, and irresponsible but the ire it drew from the Muslim world was intriguing when an American flag burning has become a requisite to any Islamist protest in these nations. In fact, that is what was imagined by the founders when they allowed for uncontrolled free speech, creating an open market of ideas that requires one to risk being offended as they are free to offend others. What’s most interesting is that Pastor Jones has more in common with his sworn enemy, Bin Ladin, than any of those commenting on this issue. Indeed, these are archetypical characters exist in each society and their black-and-white perspective of the world forces humans to obsess over their differences rather than revel in their similarities.
Beyond the esoteric elements shared by both forces, there is a structural lesson to be learned despite Mr. Jones’ wise decision not to carry out his nefarious act. When one looks through American history, there are examples of freedom of speech being tested by dissidents who burned their own American flag as an expression of their political sentiment.
The Supreme Court allowed the burning of the flag in Texas v. Johnson, and Justice Kennedy stated “the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share…the case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us.” When one envisions the debates between the founders over how to preserve the peoples’ freedom, Voltaires’ quote comes to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
To understand why a system would allow Mr. Jones this right one should understand what they give up when entereing the American system. The founders believed in unrestrictred freedom of speech because the government has a tendency to limit speech as a vehicle to accomplish their own political goals rather than for a legitimate purpose.
Further, when one enters a system that recognizes the person’s right to free speech, one must be willing to give up the freedom to restrict what they hear even if it violates their core beliefs. In a sense, by being able to have the right to say what one believes, one must also be willing to give up the freedom to restrict what they hear. So, a systematic violence plays out when one allows free speech, as people’s sensibilities are bound to be offended by the mean-spirited words of people like Mr. Jones who appear with different faces in every society.
Many groups from around the Muslim world espouse a militant rhetoric and host rallies while burning the American flag in protest of whatever transgression the U.S. may or may not have done lately. But one must look past the mere act of burning the flag to understand the persona of the individual who has a very limited understanding of the world.
The individual does not know anything about what the flag represents, how it is central to some Americans’ identity, and what the American constitution represents. Similarly, in an interview with Pastor Jones he admitted to not having read the Quran and not knowing about its contents. The protestor in Pakistan and Mr. Jones share a similarly shaded black and white world, where they unquestioningly believe what they have been conditioned to believe; and the world is viewed in an “us” against “the others” mentality.
Both are afraid and challenged by the other’s existence without even attempting to understand the other’s experience. And without realizing the common thread that exists between them, even in their current hateful state, these extremists attempt to polarize human kind into two distinct, neat categories. In summation, these sort of ignorant acts and “holy wars against infidels” deny the understanding of the common humanity shared by all. But for the narrow minority of hateful Bible-thumpers and Quran-reciters, one would think they could recognize the fallibility of the human being and realize how presumptuous it is to condemn others to damnation when that is for Allah/God to do.