Freedom of Religion & Stupidity: The Rev. Terry Jones Story

Posted: September 13, 2010 in Culture, In the News, Religion
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The world is watching. Photo Credit: AP/Getty Images

A fundamentalist Christian by the name of Reverend Terry Jones threatened to hold a Qur’an burning at his tiny Gainesville, Florida church on the 9th anniversary of 9-11. He said he believes the Qur’an is evil, that Islam is of the Devil, and he wanted to “send a message to radical Islam,” while also honoring those who died in the attacks on September 11, 2001. To him it was not a message of hate or bigotry, but truth.

Islam was wrong and he was right.

The fanatical, 58-year-old pastor faced a lot of scrutiny and interrogation in his quest, but initially remained undeterred. As an example, when asked on Anderson Cooper’s 360 on September 7th whether he knew any of the 9-11 victims’ names, he didn’t have a clue. As a point, Cooper listed a few of those names – Amenia Rasool, Gary Shamau and Sarah Khan, – some of the many innocent Muslims who also died in the World Trade Center that day, but Jones disregarded their relevance and stayed loyal to his message. Cooper then read a quote from General David Petraeus, current Commander of the United States forces in Afghanistan, explaining that his actions could “endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort.” Jones was sympathetic, but nevertheless would still not back down.

With the anniversary and event date quickly approaching, the world was now watching this once insignificant figure and he seemed excited yet increasingly uncomfortable with the mounting attention. His resolve clearly shaken, Jones was visited by the FBI. He was condemned by President Obama. Even the Vatican threw in their two cents deeming his proposed gesture “outrageous.”

As an aside, when you’ve got the Pope’s people saying you’re wrong, you’ve gotta bet you’re probably going straight to Hell… at least whatever Hell your religion believes in… if any… if it exists at all. But I digress.

Then finally, faced with overwhelming pressure and hostility as well as more than 100 death threats, on Saturday, September 11th, 2010 at 7:56am, Jones announced on NBC’s Today show that he would, “not today, not ever” burn the Qur’an.

I hate to say it, but I was a little disappointed.

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

– Evelyn Beatrice Hall

As I watched the timeline of these surreal events unfold, I couldn’t help but be vexed by three difficult questions:

  1. What kind of world are we living in where a backwards pastor, with a reported congregation of just 50 people on a good day, can provoke such worldwide outrage?
  2. Why did the media provide this lunatic with an audience?

    And most importantly…

  3. Should Reverend Terry Jones follow through on his threat to burn the Qur’an?

To answer the first question, it’s obvious that our culture and society has evolved (or devolved) to the point where anyone is capable of 15 minutes of fame. One need look no further than “Reality TV” to find a blueprint for making the unremarkable famous. (Can you believe they give out awards for these shows?) As to the media providing Jones with a stage to spout his ignorant rhetoric, they do it 7 days a week (and twice on Sunday at Fox News) because their business is ratings and ad revenue. Why should this non-story be any different?  News networks should show a bit more responsibility for who or what they consider newsworthy, however, the coverage did serve to bring much needed attention to more than a Motorhead-mustached kook. It shined a gigantic spotlight on how shortsighted some Americans have become in this debate against the Muslim religion; which brings me to the final question: Should the reverend have gone ahead with the Qur’an burning?


Demonstrators during a rally in support of the proposed Islamic center and mosque to be built near Ground Zero in New York, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010. Credit: David Goldman/AP

The First Amendment of the Constitution includes two very important rights for all American citizens: Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech. The first of these two rights should have ended the argument as to why any Islamic Center or mosque could be built on private property anywhere in New York City. Whether you like it or not, whether you think it’s insensitive or not, it is their right.

Freedom of Speech, on the other hand, supports the tenet that there is no democracy without dissent. Public opinion nor presumed stupidity is not a negating factor here either, so as much I may object to the idea of Jones or anyone burning the Qur’an or as much as I felt it was wrong for him to still consider it knowing it could potentially endanger our troops, the U.S. Constitution affords him the right to do so as well. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. in the landmark decision of Texas vs. Johnson, said it best. The Supreme Court had overturned a conviction against Gregory Lee Johnson, a man who burned an American flag while protesting at the 1984 Republican National Convention, when Justice Brennan decreed:

“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable.”

In other words, freedom should be respected, not selective.

Don’t like it? Use your Freedom of Speech. Protest. Try to change the law. Write your congressperson. But never make the mistake of thinking they are wrong and you are right; that your feelings and opinions should ever supersede the rights of others. Wrapping yourself in the American flag and bragging about our brave military “fighting to protect our freedoms” while fighting at home to take those same freedoms away from someone else, is hypocritical at best. When you do, you say their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness has less value. That is bigotry above and beyond any “truth” Terry Jones was publicly advocating.

Whether it’s Muslims trying to build a mosque or a crazy Christian threatening to burn a book, if we use fear and intimidation to rob our fellow citizens of their rights, it sets a very dangerous precedent. It will mean America is not a free country. It will mean the freedoms our military are supposedly fighting for are conditional and subjective. And it will mean the next right that could be taken away could very easily be your own.

, though he couldn’t tell you any of the victims’ names.
  1. dylangreene says:

    But, what if I say fire in a crowded theater? Speech is a very complex subject, and definitely not black and white.

    I personally believe that we should retain the freedom of speech, but we should begin to take responsibility for what we say; and that seems to be happening less and less often.

    It’s actually kind of scary if you look at things like the genocide in Rwanda and the propaganda in WWII; you’ll find that words are actually more powerful than we give them credit for.

    “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can sometimes kill you” in the words of Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who created the Stanford Prison Experiment. People in power have a tremendous ability to mold people’s behaviors; much more so than we like to think.

    I cannot accept the notion that this is a black and white because of that. This is not to say that I should decide what is said and what isn’t, but it’s something we should think about. How powerful are our words?

  2. Blake says:

    Re: Cala4Lily, that’s the problem; what is “hate speech?” It’s whatever is deemed by opinion to be “hateful.” It will change with the times and the trends, and indeed is a slippery slope whereby if we are to accept speech as being free except for that deemed to be “hateful,” we have just given it away. I’d presume that if “hate speech” was outlawed in Nazi Germany (not that it wasn’t), anyone speaking out against the regime or its practices would be classified in that bracket. We are free or we are not; like being pregnant, there is no in-between.

    Awesome article. I’ll be passing it along.

  3. Cala4Lily says:

    Great post as usual and for the most part I agree. I am a bit torn only because “hate speech” is very different then freedom of speech. I’m afraid this crazy asshole, and many like him, walk that fine line of abusing freedom of speech to spread more hate speech. I do believe the media (especially Faux News) are the biggest perpetrators of spreading hate speech under the guise of our First Amendment. Unfortunately, do we stop hate speech to the detriment of the First Amendment, another slippery slope…. a rock and a hard place I suppose! Thanks for a great post, well thought out, and giving a lot to think about!

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