The news that the massacre of UN personnel in Afghanistan was caused by anger at a Florida pastor’s burning of the Holy Qur’an is depressing and familiar. We have all been here before, most clearly in the Salman Rushdie case, and the causes which give rise to such incidents well explained by writers such as Karen Armstrong, Malise Ruthven and Jason Burke. Why do these outrages happen?
Three immediate thoughts
This incident demonstrates yet again, as if any such demonstration were still needed, the power and speed of the internet. A book-burning in Florida can be widely known in the furthest corners of Afghanistan within minutes. Yes, the net should and must be ‘free’, but a degree of awareness of what is entailed by the facility and its ‘freedom’, and a little more circumspection in using it, would not come amiss. The famous opinion given by Oliver Wendell Holmes in the case of Schenck v US (1919), that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic…” applies just as much in the world at large, in our ever more global wired-up community, than in the United States alone.
Next, the violence. We should continually remind ourselves that Mahatma Gandhi managed to persuade millions of people that snatching up weapons for bouts of intercommunal violence is never the only possible response to provocation. But then we have to recognise, but not excuse, the fact that if you live in a chronically violent society, and one of abject poverty, hatred and illiteracy, beheading your enemy within the context of “the righteous anger of the mob”, seems not only a good idea but a no-brainer: it’s morally correct and easy to do so what is there to discuss?
Where are you coming from?
Third, the mutual incomprehension. My years in the British Council overseas (“Making friends for Britain”) taught me that the potential for international misunderstanding at all levels is frightening. There are far too many examples to cite here, including the fact that for many people, the idea of imaginative fiction is just that, fiction, but in this case we encounter yet again the plain fact that for many people throughout the world, even free speech is not only disturbing and dangerous but wholly incomprehensible. How can it possibly be tolerated?
I remember discussing with an Ethiopian colleague, a wise and cultured man, the UK general election of 1979. He had found in the Times a list of candidates in one particular constituency where both National Front and Socialist Workers’ Party candidates were standing. He asked me how this could be: surely one or other of these extremists had to be illegal and should therefore be “arrested”? (Another colleague worried that the fall of the Callghan government would lead to HM The Queen and her family being harmed).
In talking to them, I got a glimpse of the mindset held by the majority of our fellow citizens upon earth, that any society like the UK where freedom of thought and speech is allowed to be exercised is simply offensive in this. For people like them, our western assumptions about making something of yourself, marrying someone you love as a mutual choice, being free to take up this or that career, shouting at canvassers, refusing to believe in any kind of god, etc all seem intolerably perverse; against nature, even. And our ignorant puzzlement about them and their world view is only too evident in thousands of ways, including military action. How can we explain that we deplore Pastor Jones’ actions but he is legally permitted to carry them out? So long as this mismatch of comprehension endures these shocking tragedies which divide us will continue to happen.
I have no doubt that the pastor knows what he is doing; he just doesn’t appreciate the depth of the alarm and hatred he has caused. Equally I have no doubt that Afghanis loathe cultural diversity and freedoms, which must seem appalling threats to them, their safety and their assumptions, but is murder the only way to express this?