April 05, 2011

On Terry Jones

The crime was horrific, and the mob outside the jail was angry. They had gathered before and demanded the death of the man inside, but a conservative cleric, who ran a religious school for boys, had appeared and told them all to go home and repent before God. Because the men in the mob were all religious and obeyed this particular cleric, they went home as he had ordered. When the crowd returned a few days later, though, while that cleric was away preaching elsewhere, they fought their way past the guards and found the man for whom they were looking. The man was from a minority group in the area, and though he was actually innocent of the crime of which he had been accused, that did not stop the violent mob from beating him horribly, tying a rope around his neck and throwing him off a bridge while hundreds cheered.

The year was 1906, and the place was my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The name of the man killed was Ed Johnsen, a black man who had been accused of the brutal rape of a white woman, Nevada Taylor. (The conservative cleric? Well, that madrasa he founded has produced several U.S. senators, governors, businessmen and one dyspeptic defense policy blogger.) The details of the lynching of Ed Johnsen
are fascinating because they resulted in local officials being held in contempt of the Supreme Court of the United States, which had been reviewing the case, and raised all kinds of issues relating to federal supremacy in addition to those of race and prejudice in the American South.

The reason I mention the story, though, is because it popped into my head when I read my friends Dion and Maria’s account of what had happened in Mazar-e Sharif a few days ago when several innocent United Nations workers were brutally murdered because some fundamentalist crank in Florida thought it would be a hot idea to videotape himself burning a Quran. It was not that long ago, we should remind ourselves going into a discussion of what happened in northern Afghanistan and why, when the ugly kinds of mob scenes we saw in Mazar might have also happened in the United States. (The last lynching of an innocent black man of which I am aware took place in the American South in 1981.)


In my many travels through the Islamic world, there is both widespread admiration for the freedom of political speech we enjoy here in the United States as well as incomprehension regarding the freedom of religious speech we enjoy. It’s all well and good to be able to denounce the president, but why on Earth do we Americans allow people to speak ill of Jesus Christ, or the Virgin Mary, or Muhammad? If “freedom of speech” means watching some artist immerse a crucifix in urine or defecate on the Bible, no thanks. Because in the Islamic world (as well as in the region of the United States where I grew up), God isn’t some abstract idea, and Jesus and Muhammad were real prophets of God who should be venerated. A common refrain I hear, whether in Afghanistan or in the Arabic-speaking world, is that we Americans should have reasonable limits on what we can say and do regarding religious speech. And there is genuine incomprehension as to why we Americans would let a wing-nut like Terry Jones walk free? How could we allow him to do the things he does? He is obviously evil and is stirring up trouble, so why does the U.S. government not put him in jail? (This is often asked in the nations of Europe, too, which often have restrictions on “hate speech.”)

As a practicing, believing Christian, I honestly understand the frustration. I too am disgusted by cheap artistic stunts that denigrate the religious traditions of others and also rabble-rousing “pastors” who burn the Quran and think they are doing the Lord’s will. But as an American Christian, I am comfortable talking about how the United States was founded and why we all agree, in our social contract with one another, to not establish any laws that constrict one’s freedom to worship. We are a nation founded by the political and religious dissidents of Mother Europe, and we reject the ways the tired old nations of that continent forced us to worship in a certain way, or denied our right to free political speech and assembly.

We keep organized religion out of government, to protect the integrity of the government, and we keep the government out of organized worship, to protect a man’s freedom to worship God – or not worship God – as he pleases.

This is who we are as America. This is our DNA. Yesterday, I argued that we had some tough questions to ask about how much blood and treasure we should spend to promote the rights of women in Afghanistan. That’s an honest question we have to ask ourselves because our values balance against and compete with our security interests and other priorities. But with respect to Terry Jones, we have to defend his right to burn the Quran to the last one of us, no matter how foolish he is and no matter how much havoc he creates.

If opportunist clerics want to inflame a crowd in Afghanistan because one idiot out of 300+ million Americans does something grotesque and stupid, fine. In the YouTube era, there is nothing the U.S. government can do to prevent such gross provocations aside from denounce them ex post facto, and we are all, as global citizens, adjusting to this new reality where a speech act in the state of Florida can lead to a massacre in Balkh Province. But when the first U.S. soldier in Afghanistan dies because of the actions of Terry Jones, we can take comfort in that fact that he or she will not have died in vain. He or she will have died defending the very document he or she swore to protect in the first place.