Friday, 10 September 2010

10 September 2010

I think this might be a good moment to remind you of the words of the First Amendment to the US constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble …”

From which it follows: one, that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has a constitutional right to build his Islamic cultural centre close to the site of the September 11th attacks in New York; and two, that Pastor Terry Jones of the 50-strong Dove World Outreach Center church in Gainsville, Florida, has an identical constitutional right to express his opposition to what he calls “extreme Islam” by burning copies of the Koran.

By the time you read this, it may have become clearer what these two men’s precise intentions now are. (At the time of writing, Mr Jones has “suspended” his Koran-burning plans; Imam Rauf is denying that he’s agreed to move the site of his proposed cultural centre.)

You will remember, I suspect, the furore five years ago when a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Many Muslims were deeply offended by what they took to be a gratuitous insult aimed at a religion which forbids the creation of images of the Prophet. Violent protests in many Muslim countries led to scores of deaths.

Those of you with longer memories may remember an earlier furore, in February 1989, when angry Muslims in Bradford burned copies of the novel The Satanic Verses. The author, Salman Rushdie, became the subject of a fatwa issued by the then supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and had to spend several years living undercover.

I was a newspaper reporter at the time, and wrote that the Satanic Verses row “encompassed a myriad of complexities: Two great religions, Islam and Christianity; secularism versus religious orthodoxy; artistic freedom versus state power; pluralism and tolerance versus doctrinal certainty.”

The issues today are much the same, but this, I would remind you, was more than a decade before the attacks of 9/11; it is as well to remember that these tensions long pre-date that fateful September day in 2001.

According to an opinion poll published yesterday in the Washington Post, two-thirds of Americans object to the proposed Islamic cultural centre close to where the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to stand. And 49 percent say they have a generally unfavourable opinion of Islam – that’s the highest number since immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

Many Americans fear Islam. Nearly one in five wrongly believe that their President and commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, is a Muslim. Terry Jones’s church in Florida says its mission is “to expose Islam for what it is … a violent and oppressive religion that is trying to masquerade as a religion of peace, seeking to deceive our society.”

His plans to burn the Koran succeeded in uniting an extraordinarily disparate range of critics, ranging from the Pope to President Obama, General David Petraeus, and the US defence secretary Robert Gates, who phoned him personally last night to ask him to call off his protest.

Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, wrote on her Facebook page: “Book burning is antithetical to American ideals. People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation – much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.”

Which brings us back neatly to the issue of rights and responsibilities. I remember that at the time of the Danish cartoons controversy, a number of people said Yes, of course the newspaper had the right to publish them, but surely it also had a responsibility not to.

And now, some people are saying the same about building an Islamic cultural centre close to Ground Zero -- or organising a Koran-burning protest.

So what do you think? Do we sometimes have a responsibility not to insist on our rights, if there is a risk of causing deep offence or provoking a violent response? Or is it an essential part of living in a free society that we do have a right to say and do things, even if they cause offence?

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