How to Fight About the Quran

Almost half a century ago, an English busybody named Mary Whitehouse sued a gay publisher in London for blasphemy. The publisher had printed a poem depicting a Roman centurion as a necrophile grappling with the body of Jesus Christ. She won the case but lost the culture war: her lawsuit was the last successful blasphemy charge in the UK, and in 2008, after decades as a dead letter, England’s blasphemy law officially ceased to exist.

But the moralists never left, and the English authorities stumbled trying to figure out how to mediate between them and those they blamed. Last month a 14-year-old boy in the West Yorkshire town of Wakefield bought an English translation of the Qur’an from Amazon at a bargain price. (Known as the “Pink Quran,” it costs about $13.) He gave it to his buddies at school, and by the end of the day it was smudged and slightly torn. The school suspended the children and police investigated the incident as a possible hate crime – which, considering it was, was his own bookand that the police generally do not investigate crumpled covers and smudged pages would be difficult to distinguish from a charge of blasphemy.

They ended up not filing charges. And when the owner received death threats, the police took the threat seriously. But the incident shows how society’s defenses, like a security guard dozing off on an late shift, tend to slip. (The attempted murder of Salman Rushdie last year woke many free-speech advocates from a similar slumber.) Only one good thing came out of this incident: it forced authorities and civil society to wipe their eyes and remembering how best to respond to incidents or non-incidents like this.

The reactionaries reacted first. A local politician, Usman Ali, called urged the government to deal with the “terrible provocation” – by which he did not mean the death threats against a child, but the slight wear and tear of the book. Then it got darker. The boy’s mother, who is not Muslim, awkwardly draped a veil over her head and pleaded for mercy during a meeting at a Wakefield mosque. A local councilor named Akef Ahmed said mitigatingly that her boy (who may not even have been responsible for the spots) was both embarrassed and “highly autistic”. The next speaker, an imam, was less forgiving than Ahmed. “We will never Tolerating disrespect for the Holy Quran,” he said. “We will sacrifice our lives for this.”

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The imam’s words suggest he supports a Rushdie-style vendetta against an autistic child. But one must remember that every community has cruel, vengeful members, and like stopped clocks, they will mark blasphemy forever. This particular Imam’s clock appears to have stopped in the late Middle Ages.

A more productive target for outrage is the man sitting to the left of the Imam, who wore not a turban or a Muslim yarmulke but a policeman’s uniform with three piping on the epaulettes. This police officer nodded along without batting an eyelid at “we will sacrifice our lives for this”. His reaction was interpreted than indifference. Benefactor, I think his silence and presence were signs of respect– an acknowledgment of the strong feelings of his fellow citizens, which they, like all human beings, have every right to express without government interference.

He was still wrong, and the best lesson from this spectacle of harassment is that in cases of alleged blasphemy respect is a poor guide to public action. The grumbling of the men (they were all men) in the mosque did not bother a police officer on duty. Sending a police officer to ensure the mother’s safety may have been wise; Even one of the male speakers described the venue as “intimidating”. The officer should not have sat in the group of men leading this humiliation session. And he should have walked off the stage as soon as he realized the opportunity was being used to bully the mother and spread a religious rather than civic message.

Respect is such a decent and harmless term that as a civil servant one tends to act respectfully. But it is, as the philosopher Simon Blackburn once put it, “a tricky concept” – and thus “clearly well suited for ideological purposes… What we might call a creep of respect sets in where the demand for minimal toleration becomes a demand for more substantial ones Respect, like compassion or appreciation, and finally reverence and reverence.”

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In practice, the recipients of these tokens of respect are the insecure, the whiny, and the violent. Police officers pay respects to a mob on the verge of violence to “relieve tension” or “lower the temperature”. Meanwhile, those who can control their emotions or who never threaten anyone demand public respect and don’t get it. Terrorism researcher Liam Duffy recently observed that by their benevolent deference, these nodding authorities “unintentionally lent legitimacy to the grievances of the offended.” Any private person can show good manners and try to appease a neighbor’s insult. Doing this with the authority of the state is something else.

Marvel at how the notion of blasphemy, once stripped of its legal bite, creeps elsewhere, colored by the law if not the law itself. A writer at Muslim site wrote that at the meeting There is nothing “disturbing” in the mosque because “it is perfectly fine to speak voluntarily to a community of people” to “clarify matters or [defuse] Tension.” You can watch the video for yourself to see if it feels more like a neighborly working out of differences or a woman begging for the life of her child. After a death threat and in the nodding presence of a police officer responsible for protecting his child from an assassination attempt, the word voluntarily conceals any kind of compulsion.

I assume the constable regretted his tacit approval of this event, probably before it was over. And even Ali, the politician who said the boy should be taken care of, seems to have wished he had said otherwise; He deleted his tweet. Just last week, a politician issued what should have been the first and only answer: to state unequivocally that anyone can respect or disrespect any religion or book in the manner of their choosing, without government support or sanction.

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That sensible response came from Home Secretary Suella Braverman The times from London. “We have no blasphemy laws in the UK and must not engage in attempts to impose them on this country,” she wrote. “There is no right not to be offended. There is no legal obligation to be reverent of any religion.” And she bigoted out the notion that “Muslims are uniquely unable to control themselves when provoked.” The closest analogue in Christianity to defiling a Qur’an might be desecration of the Host, one of the few acts that will result in you being automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church and sent to the Hot Place on EZ Pass Lane. Muslims should know that they are no more protected from ridicule than Catholics who believe in transubstantiation.

Braverman’s testimony was flawed, with superfluous and unconsidered references to Sharia law and JK Rowling; She criticized Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy, known as Prevent, for failing to recognize the “scale” of jihadism, even though Prevent’s failures were more to do with implementation. Ordinary conservative Muslims reported feeling attacked for their beliefs and practices. The problem of radicalization was great, but finding the incipient radicals among the merely pious remains difficult.

But these flaws in Braverman’s op-ed only add to the wisdom of a policy that keeps government completely out of religion. A government that nods earnestly in support of one religious position will nod earnestly in condemnation of another. There is a natural solution: if you are a government official, stay out of my erotic poems about Roman centurions and stay out of my mosque.

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