Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Burning books in 1989 and 2010

7th September 2010: an evangelical pastor plans to burn a few copies of the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11. Hilary Clinton is outraged by the book burners:
I am heartened by the clear, unequivocal condemnation of this disrespectful, disgraceful act that has come from American religious leaders of all faiths, from evangelical Christians to Jewish rabbis, as well as secular US leaders and opinion-makers.

14th January 1989: Salman Rushdie's book the "Satanic Verses" has upset some people. Ishtiaq Ahmed, of the Bradford Council of Mosques, takes part in the first book-burning of "The Satanic Verses" in Britain. He's satisfied with the result:

Finally they had made a statement. Finally that had found a way to express their anger and their frustration, their disgust, their emotions about this book

March 2nd 1989:  Just a couple of days after extremists have firebombed a couple of California bookstores selling "The Satanic Verses", British Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, is outraged,* (not by the book burning mob, or firebombing, or even the death threats to the author, but by the book itself):

We do understand that the book itself has been found deeply offensive by people of the Moslem faith. We can understand why it has been criticized. It is a book that is offensive in many other ways as well.**
To recap; burning books is like, really bad, right? Except when the book in question upsets somebody, when it's the book that's at fault. But what if Pastor Terry Jones' feelings are genuinely hurt by the Koran? What's more offensive, the contents of a book, or the act of setting fire to it? It's all very confusing. As David Mitchell (almost) said

There's altogether too much harping on respect and burning these days. If you can't respect something, you should burn it. If it's not burned, you should respect it.
In other words, just grow up, the lot of you. Especially the "outraged" politicians - it's not fair to expect much in the way of calm, rational thought from baying mobs, being egged on blockheaded evangelical pastors or mad Mullahs, but US Secretaries of State and British Foreign Secretaries ought to know better than to get involved with this politically expedient outrage nonsense. It's not only demeaning, but it encourages a tiny minority of angry half-wits to to think they can censor anything that upsets their particular view of the world and threaten everybody else's freedom of thought and expression with impunity.

* To be fair, the outrage of Geoffrey Howe wasn't a thing to be greatly feared - Dennis Healey found his wrath like being 'savaged by a dead sheep'.

**In this context its's also instructive to read some interesting contemporary statements about the Rushdie affair from former US President Jimmy Carter, the Vatican newspaper, the then Commonwealth Chief Rabbi and the ever-reliable US vice president J. Danforth Quayle (who hadn't read "The Satanic Verses" or, I suspect, any book without pictures) here.