Dr. Terry Jones is back with his lighter fluid and Korans. In what he called a worldwide campaign of Koran burning, Jones torched the Islamic holy book and a picture of Muhammad in the name of fighting religious intolerance. He and his supporters claim that they are only trying to help Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani who was convicted of apostasy in Iran, a case that we have been following. Of course, the action will only harden the demand to put Youcef Nadarkhani to death by irate Muslims in Iran and other countries. But, few people believe that Youcef Nadarkhani is anything more than an excuse to engage in such hateful demonstrations.
My greatest concern is that this hateful lunacy of Jones and his followers is the renewed calls to criminalize anti-religious speech — a trend in the West. Most people find Jones’ actions to be disgraceful and contemptible. However, it remains a protected act under the first amendment like burning a flag. The great burden of civil libertarians is that our causes are often better than our clients. We must defend people like Jones not over the content of his speech but his right to speak. As people call for criminalization of Koran burning this week, we are again seeing religious sentiments trump free speech values.
Of course, the irony is that Jones and his followers have far more in common than they wish to admit with violent Muslims who kill and burn in the name of religious tolerance. They should not be the catalyst for rolling back on speech rights. The best protection for freedom of religion is the freedom of speech. The civil liberties community should not shy away from defending the speech rights in this controversy while condemning the message (and messenger).
Notably, Iran has demanded an apology from the United States for failing to stop the burning. The Administration has drawn a dangerously line with Muslim countries in first supporting the concept of an international blasphemy standard. As I have mentioned before, the efforts of the Obama Administration to work with countries like Egypt on an international blasphemy standard is a threat to free speech around the world. After first supporting an international blasphemy standard, the Administration sought to get Egypt and other countries to adopt the Brandenburg standard as the basis for such prosecutions. These cases show the mentality of countries pushing for a “balance” between free speech and religion. It also shows why the use of the Brandenburg standard is so dangerous in the hands of such officials who view free speech as the cause of imminent violence. Because any joke or image of the Prophet can trigger violence, the standard is immediately satisfied in countries like Egypt, which can then claim some legal legitimacy under the standard created with the United States. Free speech is under attack around the world and I view this effort as facilitating, rather than curtailing, such crackdowns on dissidents and intellectuals.
This act by Jones will likely trigger violence and confirm the use Brandenburg to criminalize speech in other countries. Indeed, it is likely to fuel the call for such prosecutions in this country.