A Florida church’s plans to burn copies of the Qur’an on September 11 have drawn widespread condemnation, including from the local fire department. The Gainesville Sun reported earlier this week that the city had denied Dove World Outreach Center’s application for a burn permit:
Deputy Chief Tim Hayes, who serves as the department’s fire marshal, said he and an investigator went to the church’s 20-acre property on Northwest 37th Street earlier this month to determine what the burn would entail.
Under the fire ordinances the City Commission adopted last year, bonfires aren’t allowed without a permit, Hayes said.
Under Section 10-63, “Open burning and outdoor burning are prohibited in the City of Gainesville unless otherwise specifically permitted as provided by this article.”
The section goes on to prohibit burning newspaper, corrugated cardboard, container board or office paper, which are akin to books, [interim chief of Gainesville Fire Rescue, Gene] Prince said.
Hayes said the denial had nothing to do with the church’s intent.
“It wouldn’t matter what the book is they’re burning,” he said.
That the “book” in question happens to be the Qur’an is, from the fire department’s perspective, irrelevant: its objection is to outdoor burning. (The church has said it will ignore the ruling.)
Though the city’s decision may make good sense in terms of fire safety, it obviously does not begin to address what it is about this particular proposed bonfire that makes it so objectionable. But what is that exactly?
According to many critics, the issue is book-burning. This way of framing the offense places the church’s plans in the context of an often ugly history of anti-liberal movements in the West, including National Socialism. But on that reading, the nature of the “book” is also secondary: burning the Qur’an is offensive because book-burning is offensive, and the Qur’an is a book—a book, so far as the logic of this argument is concerned, like any other.
However, depicting Qur’an-burning simply as a form of anti-liberalism may not adequately capture the nature of the event’s affront to Muslims. Indeed, it may allow similar insults a free pass, so long as they are packaged in terms of liberal values.
Consider the following from an essay on the website Secular News Daily:
Pastor Terry Jones says the idea came, in part, from the recent success of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” He comments that “We feel, as Christians, one of our jobs is to warn,” and that burning the holy books of another religion will provide Muslims an opportunity to convert.
Jones missed the point of Everybody Draw. That event, in response to the irrational attacks (including physical assaults, attempted murder, attempted arson, and successful murder) on Western cartoonists, authors, and filmmakers who drew or otherwise criticized Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, was intended to communicate to radical Islamists that Westerners would not cave to their demands of censorship.
International Burn is not about freedom of expression. It is about hatred of Islam, not just the radical actions of some Muslims.
On this reading, “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day”—an event organized earlier this year partly in opposition to Comedy Central’s “censorship” of the cartoon South Park-–is motivated by secular reason, whereas burning the Qur’an is motivated by religious bigotry. Whereas the former is about defending free expression against “irrational attacks,” the latter is itself such an attack.
But are the differences between the two events really that clear-cut? The difficulty of articulating a principled distinction here raises complicated questions about the adequacy of secular rights-language for getting into view the nature of the church’s calculated insult to Muslims.