A church in Florida is planning to burn copies of the Koran on September 11. That proposal has been widely condemned, and now General Petraeus has entered the fray, warning that such a protest by the church could endanger American servicemen:
The top US commander in Afghanistan said Monday the planned burning of Korans on Sept. 11 by a Florida church could put the lives of American troops in danger and damage the war effort.
Gen. David Petraeus said the Taliban would exploit the demonstration for propaganda purposes, drumming up anger toward the U.S. and making it harder for allied troops to carry out their mission of protecting Afghan civilians.
“It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort,” Gen. Petraeus said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems. Not just here, but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community.”
This strikes me as troubling. Not because Petraeus is wrong; on the contrary, I think he is probably right. Already, mobs in Pakistan have demonstrated against the planned Koran burning by, among other things, burning American flags. History, e.g. the homicidal response to the Danish cartoons and the false report, circulated by the American press, that U.S. soldiers had flushed a Koran down a toilet at Guantanamo Bay, suggest that Petraeus’ fears are well founded.
Moreover, I personally am not in favor of burning Korans. My advice to the Florida church would be, don’t do it.
Still, is it not highly problematic when a senior military officer warns American citizens against exercising their undoubted First Amendment rights? This situation is different from the Koran-down-the-toilet story. We criticized news outlets at the time for endangering American troops, but that was mostly because the story was false. Presumably we can all agree that newspapers and magazines should not circulate false reports that endanger our troops. But what about accurate stories of Americans exercising their constitutional right to criticize Islam by burning Korans?
What gives rise to this dilemma, of course, is the fanaticism of radical Muslims, who have, indeed, responded violently to real or perceived slights to their religion. There is no parallel phenomenon with other religions. The Taliban blew up ancient statues of Buddha without worrying for a moment that Buddhists would react violently. Saudi Arabia destroys Bibles as a matter of policy, but it never occurs to the Saudis to fear mobs of rampaging Christians–or even Congressional disfavor in this mostly-Christian nation.
Perversely, the crazier radical Muslims behave, the more it benefits them. Today it is burning Korans, but the broader objective is to outlaw, de facto, any criticism of Islam. Radical Muslims want to establish a zone of protection around Islam that insulates it against the critiques to which everything else–not just other religions–is subject. If that isn’t the laying of an important foundation stone of sharia, what is it? And if there is one religion that is uniquely exempted from scrutiny or criticism, is it absurd to say that that religion is “established” in the constitutional sense?
Of course, the First Amendment only prohibits the establishment of a religion by government. Which is where we came in–there is a fundamental difference between my telling Terry Jones, senior minister at the Dove World Outreach Center, that a mass Koran-burning is a bad idea, and General Petraeus saying the same thing. Especially when Petraeus, probably the most respected person in the federal government, warns that the likely effect is to endanger our troops. In many contexts, taking actions that endanger the troops would be regarded as giving aid and comfort to the enemy, a concept that Petraeus came uncomfortably close to endorsing.
Petraeus didn’t mean to step over the line, I’m sure, and other military officers have tried to disclaim any intent to chill Americans’ free speech rights:
Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who oversees the effort to train Afghan security forces said he was informed of the planned Florida protests several days ago by a senior minister in the Afghan government.
Gen. Caldwell said many Afghans do not understand either the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment or the fact that President Barack Obama can’t simply issue a decree to stop Mr. Jones from his demonstration. Military officials said they were not trying to deny Mr. Jones his right to free speech, but feared he was not thinking about the consequences of his actions.
“There is no question about First Amendment rights; that is not the issue,” Gen. Caldwell said. “The question is: What is the implication over here? It is going to jeopardize the men and women serving in Afghanistan.”
The question is a delicate one, and it is easy to sympathize with military leaders’ giving priority to the safety of men and women under their command. But what are we to make of the fact that many Afghans do not understand the First Amendment? Should that be a cause of government officials’ calling on American citizens to refrain from exercising their rights? I don’t think so.
In the end, our way of life is simply incompatible with the precepts of radical Islam. There is no way to reconcile the two. Rather than start down the road of self-censorship, our government officials, including the military, should stand up for American freedoms.
Finally, an interesting question: how is this controversy similar to, and different from, that over the Ground Zero Mosque? Both involve actions that private citizens have a right to take, but arguably shouldn’t. It is a worthwhile comparison, but that is a post for another day.