Last month, Terry Jones, the pastor of a Florida church, had a Koran burned and posted the proceedings on YouTube. In response, a mob in Afghanistan killed at least 20 people, many of them UN relief workers.
In what has become a routine, an act of violence against the expression of Islamic faith was answered by violence against persons. Criticism of Pastor Jones' clearly provocative act has been countered with an invocation of the First Amendment's right to free speech. The US government's failure to respond powerfully lends plausibility to assertions that the United States is hostile to Islam, undercutting our pursuit of both war and peace.
But Congress can act. Congress should address this impasse by declaring that burning the Koran and similar insults to Islam, or indeed to any faith, are inconsistent with U.S. values.
For Muslims, the "Holy Koran" is, itself, holy, not merely a text that may be reproduced, or destroyed, without consequence. As a result, actions like that of Pastor Jones cannot be dismissed by Muslims as ignorant publicity stunts.
The Muslim sensitivity to insults to Islam is not new. In many lands and over many centuries, Muslims have suffered hurtful indignities, including Koran burning. It is against this older and broader context that many Muslims are inclined to understand Pastor Jones. From this perspective Jones is not an anomaly but instead exemplifies the hostility to Islam traditional in the West.
The opponents of U.S. interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere need the United States to be against Islam. They need the United States to be the latest incarnation of historical enemies. So, for those who care about peace, it is vital that Muslims and non-Muslims understand that insults to Islam, especially Koran burning, are not acceptable in American society.
A declaration of American respect for Islam and all religions is perfectly consistent with our robust First Amendment jurisprudence, which precludes simply outlawing Koran burning. Even desecration of our own national symbols (flag burning) is allowed. Moreover, the United States is uniquely enthusiastic about labeling activities "speech," thereby making regulation virtually impossible.
It is hardly clear that our permissive understanding of free speech has actually produced better political discourse. Many Americans were appalled when the Supreme Court recently upheld, as constitutionally protected speech, the shouting of insults at the funerals of fallen soldiers.
But whether or not U.S. First Amendment protections are too permissive is not the point here. In dealing with politically troubling speech, as Justice Brandeis famously said, the traditional "remedy to be applied is more speech." What is needed now is precisely "more speech:" the United States Congress should respond to Pastor Jones. Nothing in the First Amendment prevents our representatives from passing a "Declaration of the Sense of Congress" condemning the burning of the Koran.
Of course, Congress cannot respond to every group in the United States that finds itself offended by the actions of some other group or individual. It is also true that the United States currently has military engagements across the Muslim world. Bin Laden and others have said that the United States is at war with Islam. But our citizens, our allies, and even our adversaries - especially our adversaries, or those who might become adversaries - need to know that Islam can be at home in the United States, and that our wars are fought in defense of core interests, not out of hostility to Islam.
The U.S. Congress therefore should declare something along these lines:
We condemn acts intended as offenses to the Islamic faith. We condemn, in particular, the burning of the Koran.
None of the military operations of the United States reflect an anti-Islamic sentiment on the part of the American people, or an anti-Islamic policy on the part of the U.S. government.
It is the sense of Congress that offenses against all faiths are inconsistent with our national values. Islam is the faith of millions of our own respected citizens.
David A. Westbrook is the Floyd H. and Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar at the University at Buffalo Law School and author of Deploying Ourselves: Islamist Violence, Globalization and the Responsible Projection of U.S. Force
Suggested Citation: David A. Westbrook, Congress Should Oppose Koran Burning, JURIST - Forum, May 3, 2011, http://jurist.org/forum/2011/05/congress-should-oppose-koran-burning.php.