An outsider seeking to understand the angry debate over a Florida pastor who plans to hold an “International Burn a Quran Day” on September 11 would do well to consider two texts familiar to most Americans.
First is Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 (the title refers to the temperature at which paper burns).
This reading-list staple in American high schools tells the story of Guy Montag, a “fireman” of the future whose job is not to extinguish fires, but, in an over-entertained, savage dystopia, to burn books.
And thereby to extinguish independent thought.
The book echoes the anti-intellectual strain in American culture, something Bradbury worried about in the America of 1953. Fears of Soviet “enemies within” were tearing the nation apart the country’s politics and cultural life were polluted by a fantasy-based ideological witch hunt organized by Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin.
The other document is the US constitution, a text Americans are taught to venerate as a model charter for ensuring life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Its first amendment reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
It is not, obviously, freedom of religion that explains the planned action of the Florida pastor.
It is rather the constitutional protection of free speech that is important.
The pastor could easily evoke it before the courts to say that he was merely expressing himself – as the constitution guarantees – with his anti-Islamic bonfire.
That’s why the White House, national religious leaders, and even the top military man in Afghanistan, David Petraeus, can only beg and plead with him to reconsider the damage his bizarre auto de fé may cause to public order in the US, and to America’s image overseas.
But there’s more than politics to this: ask an average American what he or she thinks about Quran-burning, they will likely reply that it is offensive in the extreme, even “un-American,” and that an utterly marginal pastor has grabbed the limelight by sheer power of childish provocation.
Now lest Muslims abroad think this kind of religious provocation is exclusively targeted against them, they might consider the very American controversy surrounding the fairly self-explanatory work of art known as “Piss Christ”: a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine.
It is hard to think of an object better designed to rile the religious Conservative right – and in the late 1980s it worked perfectly, firing up, notably, Senators Al d’Amato and Jesse Helms.
But, ultimately, the conservative public’s and politicians’ anger could only focus on the $15,000 a government-funded arts body paid for the work, because the principle of free speech behind the public exhibition of the work was considered constitutionally, well… sacred.
The situation is different now, of course.
The planned religious “statement” by sacred book burning offends not the majority Christian population of the United States, but the minority group of Muslims living here.
Their depiction and treatment in the right-wing media, and even in political campaign ads is increasingly beyond the pale, even if forever protected by the First Amendment.
As I discovered at a giant rally attended by followers of Fox TV host Glenn Beck, for a growing part of the US public, they are the new enemies within.
While in most Western countries hate speech laws would prohibit much of what is intimated, alleged and hinted at about Muslims in the right-wing media here, in the US it is “anything goes” speech-wise.
But it is difficult to not to ask yourself at times if the free speech fetish hasn’t gone too far.
Especially when you consider the fear pushing American Muslims to tone down their Eid celebrations, because they happen to coincide this year with the 9/11 commemorations.
Or when you consider that American Muslims feel it necessary to create TV ads to prove they are not terrorists.
Or when you consider the increasing incidence of anti-Muslim violence, including an arson attack on a mosque in Tennessee.
Finally, when you consider that a Florida pastor wants to burn a pile of Qurans, it is hard not to think also of what the German Heinrich Heine poet and essayist wrote in the early 1800s of the very same activity, undertaken during the Spanish Inquisition:
Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen
“Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.”
Heine was Jewish. His books would be burned too: in 1930s Germany.