Terry Jones, the pastor of the small church in the southeastern state of Florida, has backed down from declaring this Saturday, September 11, 2010 "Burn a Koran Day." But the idea that someone in the United States would be allowed to burn copies of Islam's most sacred text is still horrifying and puzzling to many people. Courts have ruled numerous times that such an action, no matter how offensive or reprehensible, is protected by the Constitution of the United States.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, the director of the Minaret of Freedom Institute in Maryland, sums up the frustration and anger felt by Muslims over the public burning of the Quran.
"How is it that the right of this pastor to burn Qurans is unquestioned, while the right of Faisal Rauf and his people to build an Islamic center in Manhattan - not to mention the other mosques in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and other places - are controversial issues? To anyone who's not lived here and doesn't understand that there's always been political give and take against legal human rights, this is just looks like simple hypocrisy," said Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad.
The U.S. Constitution enshrines freedom of expression in speech and religion.
Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, says that under the Constitution, it is difficult but necessary to allow expression of objectionable or even offensive views in the United States.
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"Freedom of speech is easy when the message is one few people find objectionable," said Daniel Mach. "But defending the right of free expression is most critical when the message, like the one here, is one that most people consider reprehensible. The answer in our system is not to restrict people's right to speak or protest, even when their speech is bigoted or hateful."
In case after case, U.S. courts have affirmed that free speech includes modes of expression that might offend even most of society, including rallies by American Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, and burning the U.S. flag.
But a common question of many people around the world is, "Why don't U.S. authorities ban the burning of the Quran, which many people find extremely hateful?"
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad of the Minaret of Freedom Institute points out that other Western democracies have laws banning hate speech, but that freedom of speech in the United States is unique.
"The American notion of democracy differs from that of all other Western countries," he said. "America is the only country in the world where you can burn any book you want to as a gesture of defiance without consequences. For example, if in Germany or France you were to write a book questioning the Holocaust, you would go to jail and there are people in jail in France for doing that. Only in the United States could you do such a thing."
George Washington University law professor Ira Lupu says that for hate speech to be a crime in the United States, it has to be part of a call to commit violence.
"If he [Reverend Terry Jones] got up there and burned the Quran and said, 'All right folks, let's burn the Quran; let's go march across the street to the mosque or the Islamic center and throw bricks through the window,' well, that's an incitement, okay? That's an incitement," said Ira Lupu. "But if he burns the Quran and expresses dislike for Islam, he has not incited people with his words to imminent lawless action. He may have incited people to hatred, but hatred's not a crime, either. Hatred is an attitude. It's not a crime."
Charles Haynes is Director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the First Amendment Center here in Washington. He says unbridled freedom of expression allows for an open marketplace of ideas in which hateful views of a tiny minority will be overwhelmed by vast majority of people who find them offensive.
"So it's true that freedom in the United States, especially religious freedom, can get messy," said Charles Haynes. "But the messiness of it is also the genius of our arrangement. So I think that people will see if they look carefully that censoring speech or keeping people from saying things that may offend other people actually backfires and makes it worse. Giving full freedom of expression to everyone means that speech we do like will drown out speech we don't like."
Legal scholars point out that the United States is the most liberal country in the world with respect to freedom of expression.