Political Promise

Ideas are Fireproof. A Qur’an is only paper.

In Alex Gabriel on September 13, 2010 at 11:11 am

Do not worry about the likes of Terry Jones, says Alex Gabriel. It only makes things worse.

Nine years on from 9/11 and the world’s eyes are on Florida, of all places. Reverend Terry Jones, as by now we all surely know, is so disturbed conceptually by a Muslim community centre in Manhattan that he’s ready to burn several hundred Qur’ans in protest. Both the world and the American government have begged him to stop, and the last we heard at the time of writing was that he issued a two-hour ultimatum for the centre either to be moved or not built at all; President Obama has personally spoken out and Robert Gibbs has pleaded on the phone. I can’t help but feel, though, that the now-shocked Muslims Jones attacks have only made things worse for themselves in their reaction.

I disagree with Islam profoundly, as I do with all religions, but even if I didn’t this stunt wouldn’t bother me. Burn Philip Pullman or The God Delusion to your heart’s content, if you wish, and throw in a copy of the Human Rights Act with it. Burn all the law books and holy texts you want, and burn this article too if it offends you. (Better still, shred it to avoid the carbon footprint.) The vital aspects of all these texts are the ideas within them, not the paper they’re printed on – and to paraphrase Alan Moore, ideas are fireproof. Terry Jones can burn all the Qur’ans he wants, and Muslims shouldn’t be worried. All he can damage is paper and ink, while their philosophical convictions are unharmed; unlike when books have been burnt in the past, this is no more than a petty, ineffective tantrum.

When the Nazis burned books in Wartburg or the Opernplatz, it wasn’t merely their hatred that was obscene. These books had been taken forcibly from libraries, universities and private bookshelves by fanatics who thought ideas like Marxism could be banned or somehow deleted; they burnt them to control what the people of Germany thought. Jones on the other hand is only burning his own possessions. He has, as far as we know, paid thousands of dollars for the texts he plans to destroy while not actually doing anything to stop others owning them. Spectacularly farcical, the Jones plan has done nothing to impair worldwide Islam and actually helped fund it – rather than panicking, the world should just be grinning at his stupidity.

There are some who say we shouldn’t laugh at people like Jones, that ideologue bullies should be taken with utmost seriousness. Didn’t they see Nick Griffin on Question Time? Mocked by the panellists and ridiculed by the audience, any semblance he had of being in control vanished. From exploiting church workers to demanding negotiators, everything about Jones suggests megalomania – and as anyone who’s ever met one knows, laughter makes a megalomaniac powerless. Imagine how whiny and pathetic he’d have looked if instead of global uproar, the Muslim community had simply greeted him with shrug and a statement saying ‘…bothered?’ Better still, an preoccupied ‘Fuck off.’

Yet Jones is clever for a moron, because he obviously knew they wouldn’t do this. The Muslim world recently is addicted to being offended, and their outcry has only empowered him. By making threats and burning America’s sacred flag – an equally inconsequential act of protest – to show their anger, they’ve gained Jones the ear (and pleas) of the American government and given him an influence he woud never otherwise have had, to the point of being able to hold books hostage the same way Al Qaeda might humans. No doubt he’s also gained influence on anti-Islamists who will actually do more than burn their own purchases. Both the flag-devoted American Christians and the insecure Middle East Muslims have strong religious traditions where objects have mystical significance, and because of that both view their icons’ destruction as far more damaging than actually it is.

Of course the Qur’an is more to Muslims than just any book, but if the things in it are divine and eternally true, why worry if someone scorches the paper they’re on? Jones attacking the Qur’an is symbolic, but symbols are only as powerful as we make them, especially when destroyed. The only reason flag-burning has impact is that America sees its banner as more than just fabric; realise that the democracy it stands for will survive the symbol’s destruction and the act becomes a useless, juvenile protest. The same is true of the Muslims’ texts: their ideals will still be the case (or not) regardless of what happens to a few copies.

A month ago Terry Jones was a cretinous, antagonising bully. Now because the world panicked over something inconsequential, he’s a cretinous antagonising bully with the government’s ear. If we want to stop him and people like him, we really must all of us just learn not to care.

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  1. Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.

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