Photo: John Raoux / Associated PressIt was unbelievable: last week a formerly obscure pastor in Florida held in his hands the safety of possibly thousands of people and the success of US strategy in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world — and there was nothing anybody could do about it.

Terry Jones, leader of a tiny church with a pretentious name, was threatening to burn copies of the Qur’an on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, and he kept up his threats until the very eve of the anniversary.

Then, invoking an imaginary (face-saving) “deal” with the sponsor of the new Islamic centre near ground zero, he announced that his group would “not today, not ever” burn a copy of the Qur’an. By that time, not only the top US commander in Afghanistan, but the US Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defence, and finally President Obama himself had felt obliged to denounce Jones’ plan as disrespectful, disgraceful and dangerous.

Of course, the pastor’s stunt had only come to that bizarre pitch through the efforts of the media facilitated by the internet. If it had not been picked up by the likes of the New York Times and CNN, probably only Gainesville, Florida, would have known about it. But it is no use moaning about the media; sensationalism is what they do and that is not likely to change.

For myself, reading the news headlines on Friday morning with disbelief, I wondered why Jones and his henchmen had not been arrested and locked up for disturbing the peace, or on any other plausible charge. But you cannot do that in America because burning the holy book of a religious faith is protected free speech.

The Vatican called it “an outrageous and grave gesture against a book considered sacred by a religious community”. But there is no law against such things in the United States. The Supreme Court has ruled that only the likelihood of “imminent violence” (in America, presumably) would make incitement to violence a crime. Otherwise, the right to “say” whatever you feel like trumps all other considerations. Even when it is certain, as in the current instance, to inflame passions that are already simmering in various Muslim populations around the world.

Coinciding with protests over the “ground zero mosque”, Jones’ crazy posturing — and the copycat actions of two other pastors in Tennessee who actually did burn Qur’ans on Sunday — was a gift to the Taliban. On the previous weekend as Americans celebrated Labour Day, 500 people in Kabul protested and burned the Florida pastor in effigy.

On Saturday, after he had retracted his threat, more than 10,000 people gathered in Lowgar province, south of Kabul, and were stirred to violence as demonstrators hurled stones and tried to storm the provincial governor’s compound. On Sunday in another district hundreds of protestors tried to overrun the local government’s headquarters, and Afghan police opened fire, killing two people and wounding five others. Demonstrators chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Christians”.

There were also protests in Indonesia, and Iran gave warning that it could release an uncontrolled Muslim response.

All right; in terms of what might have happened, that did not amount to much. But let’s keep in mind that the people who are going to suffer the worst consequences of Muslim anger against “Christian” extremism will not be the citizens of New York or London or Sydney, but the beleaguered Christian minorities living in Muslim countries. In Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq and many other places their lives are already so intolerable that those who are able to flee are doing so; others will just have to suffer the torching of their homes and churches (where they are allowed a church, that is) and the deprivation of human and civil rights.

With so much at stake, it seems like madness to cling to a notion of free speech that has become completely detached from any hierarchy of values — certainly any in which the sacred things of the various religious faiths has priority.

The situation has become so insane that the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida — part of a network that normally seems to have no love for religion of any stripe — defends pastor Jones’ anti-Islamic “language”, including the wearing of T-shirts by some children in his church emblazoned with “Islam is of the Devil”. At least the ACLU is consistent.

Many countries, especially in Europe, have hate speech laws that would appear to make such slogans, as well as Qur’an burning, an offence. How would Jones and his flock fare in the Netherlands, where Member of Parliament Geert Wilders was prosecuted in January last year for inciting hatred against Muslims and their belief? Or in France, where, the previous year, actress and animal rights activist Bridgitte Bardot was fined for criticising a Muslim ceremony involving the slaughter of sheep.

This is not to say that Europe has it right, that it is a model for the United States, any more than is Canada, where Macleans magazine had to face the federal Human Rights Commission over a complaint from the Canadian Islamic Congress against an article by Mark Steyn — part of a book and part of a large body of Steyn’s writing critical of Islamic culture and western multiculturalism. In the end, the Commission conceded that the text in question did not amount to hate speech.

Muslims, to the extent that they live in secular democracies and are part of a global community have to get used to criticism of themselves and their faith, just as Christians have. Certainly, no-one should be able to hide behind their faith to justify a crime. And, even when there is no question of bad behaviour, criticism of religious ideas and customs that appear irrational or unjust to others in the community can be salutary for followers of a particular faith. After all, they have the freedom to explain the value of these things as they see it through a dialogue with others.

But should any faith have to put up with hate-filled attacks on their sacred books, places of worship and symbols? The burning of the Qur’an? The ridiculing of the Prophet? The “art” exhibitions and television shows that go out of their way to portray Christ and his Mother in the most insulting ways possible? That expose the Bible to desecration? All that used to be called blasphemy?

None of these things can correct the perceived mistakes of any faith, let alone draw its followers into dialogue. They are purely destructive and can only lead to social polarisation, if not violence — including from Christians as ignorant and aggrieved as pastor Jones.

In its warning against the burning of the Qur’an last week the Vatican said that “each religion, with its respective sacred books, places of worship and symbols, has the right to respect and protection”. Not only America, but all those countries which supposedly protect a person’s religious freedom, should address that right without delay.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet