Burning Qurans and Ground Zero mosques: when is it reasonable to take offence?

Pastor Jones was too handsomely rewarded for his threats

Phil Sandlin/AP

For one mad moment, it seemed as if the standoff over the burning Qurans and the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque would both be settled at one go—with a trade. Terry Jones, the deranged Florida pastor threatening to burn 200 Qurans to protest Islam’s responsibility, as he sees it, for the Sept. 11 attacks, announced to a waiting world he would call off the bonfire, in return for a promise by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the slightly saner cleric behind the proposal to build a mosque in downtown Manhattan, near the site of the attacks, to move it further uptown.

It soon emerged that the deal existed only in the pastor’s crowded head. And a good thing, too: such an exchange would not only have rewarded Jones for his threats, but implies a false equivalence between the two events, the one involving the destruction of a religious symbol, the other the construction of one. Yet for all their differences, both raise essentially the same question: when is it reasonable to take offence, and when to give it? A civil society, it is often forgotten, imposes mutual obligations: not to give offence needlessly, certainly, but also not to take offence too easily.

The fevered political climate in America, post-Sept. 11, has offered plenty of examples of both. Worse, they seem to feed off of each other, an excess of sensitivity leading to a deliberate outrage and thus to still further overreactions until, in the case of the pyromaniacal pastor, we reach the level of opera bouffe: a telephone call from the U.S. defence secretary, pleading with him not to go ahead with the protest for fear of the mayhem and violence it would set off around the world.

Of all the reasons why the pastor might have been persuaded to call off his protest, this is surely the worst. If Jones has been altogether too handsomely rewarded, in the form of media attention, for his own threats, it is still more grotesque to reward those who threaten violence in response. Indeed, it excuses the latter for responsibility for their actions, in a way that almost seems to endorse Jones’s point: that Islam is inherently violent.

I rather doubt we would be having this discussion were someone proposing to burn a Bible. That the government of the mightiest nation on earth would stoop to pleading with so fringe a character is a sign, not of sensitivity, but fear. The proper response of any political leader, asked about the pastor’s activities, is to say: “I do not comment on the ravings of every street-corner lunatic.”

But back to my main point. It is true that the pastor has a legal right to burn the Quran, as the imam has a right to build his mosque. It is also true, as has been said in both cases, that just because you have a right to do something does not make it right to do so.

But this does not get us very far. We can no more say an action is wrong, simply because others are offended, than we can say it is right, merely because we have the right to be offensive. Rather, it depends: is it reasonable to take offence? Was it necessary to give it?

Most people would find it reasonable for Muslims to take offence at the burning of their holy book, if only because the pastor had to go so far out of his way to offend them: book-burning is hardly an everyday activity. By contrast, consider that radical sect of Islam that regards any form of statuary as blasphemous. This so intrudes upon the norms of Western society that we would be far less sympathetic to expressions of outrage on these grounds, however sincerely felt.

This helps, I think, to sort out the issues surrouding the so-called Ground Zero mosque. Up to a point, we should be sympathetic to those, particularly the victims’ families, who would find it offensive to see a Muslim shrine on the very site where so many died in the name of Islam (even a perverted version of it). Up to what point? If the mosque were actually proposed to be built right on the site: again, if only because the offending parties had to go so far out of their way to cause offence. Of all the places in the United States to build a mosque, we might ask, did they really have to choose that exact spot? Was that reasonable?

But the mosque is not to be built at Ground Zero, but two blocks away. The further you get from the site, the more the mosque itself and not the location becomes the issue, the more we are obliged to ask: is it reasonable to take offence? Does it not imply that all Muslims are to blame for the sins of a few? That Islam itself is offensive? At which point, a civil society must surely say: no, you have forfeited our sympathy.

As for the loony Rev. Jones, I can’t say I had much sympathy for him to begin with. But it’s pretty clear he’s lost it.

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