It is true that Pastor Jones’ level of ignorance is so disturbing that even his horrendous mustache fails to match the nauseating effect of his words. Thankfully, his decision was condemned by a great number of groups, communities, organizations, and influential individuals. We have to understand that this is not simply about burning the Qur’an, there are serious ramifications to such actions. In the climate in which we live today, a climate where emotions run high, where religious expression is very reactionary, where devastating wars are being fought, and where intercultural relations have intensified, actions like the Pastor’s are extremely harmful. These actions lead to violence against Americans abroad, jeopardize interfaith efforts and conflict resolution attempts, and threaten the stability of our society itself.
The last point is crucial because four to six million Muslims are American or live permanently in the United States. And it would be a tragedy to keep feeding the beast of ignorance and prejudice, and thus create an environment that is extremely hostile towards Muslims. Many recent polls show that more and more Americans have unfavorable views of Islam and Muslims. When a minority becomes a pariah in the eyes of the majority, there are risks that the principles of tolerance and pluralism (and the legal framework of protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority), upon which this country was built could be compromised for the sake of political expediency and religious animosity. In the past, we have seen other minority groups suffer such a fate (ex: Japanese-Americans) and today, as a nation, we regret the way these fellow Americans were treated. In addition, we know that other religious minorities, including Jewish communities and Catholic communities, have faced major challenges as they tried to establish themselves in the Protestant landscape of America. We have come a long way since then and we must make sure not to go backwards in this domain.
But even as we call for tolerance and for the upholding of our pluralistic values, we have to remember that jeopardizing freedom of speech is nothing short of a major catastrophe. Freedom of speech must never be taken for granted; it took the heavy sacrifices of so many generations for this noble idea to become a reality on the ground (even if imperfectly). Human dignity itself is tightly connected to the ability of a person to freely express herself. Moreover, as someone who grew up in an environment where freedom of speech was lacking, I know first-hand that when censors run amok, what follow are the dominance of fear, the stifling of creativity and the absence of self-criticism. So, although the words and actions of Pastor Crazy Mustache deserve no respect, his right to express himself must be protected. The key here is that as long as Pastor Book-burner remains an oddity in our communities, we have succeeded as a tolerant pluralistic society. However, if his kind of message and his type of vision become popular, then we must seriously consider that something has gone awry in the way we teach our children and inform ourselves, as individuals and as communities.