It didn't come to my attention that last March 20 had been International Judge the Qur'an Day until I read about the event this evening. The day was observed primarily in the Florida church of the Rev. Terry Jones, who may be remembered as the pastor who threatened to burn a Qur'an last year in an act of defiance of Islamic violence. Jones backed down from his promise then, but on the 20th, following a mock trial in which the Islamic holy book was found guilty of promoting violence, the pastor consigned his copy to the flames. The punishment was chosen by Jones's Facebook friends, burning being preferred to shredding, drowning and firing squad.
While I hadn't heard of this solemn proceeding, the benighted natives of Afghanistan had. I don't know how long it took for the news to reach them, but the perhaps predictable result was seen earlier today, when a mob stormed a UN compound in Mazar-i-Sharif and killed a number of internationals. Rev. Jones will no doubt consider his point further proved by this demonstration, but the sequence of events revives the old question of the moral responsibility of provocateurs.
The provocateur, especially if he's an American, will fall back on his right to free expression. As an American, he is likely to feel that moral responsibility for a violent act falls entirely and exclusively on the perpetrator. As long as the perpetrator is presumed to have the intellectual or moral capacity to refuse to act -- to resist temptation, if you will, -- he is assumed to have no right to protest that he was provoked. If the perpetrator is a Muslim, his claim that provocation obliged him to make reprisal is dismissed as the product of his violent or otherwise immoral faith. Viewed from a moralist perspective, the blame will nearly always fall entirely on those provoked into violence, while the provocateur, at most, is chided for imprudence. But we needn't view this scenario solely with the idea of assigning blame. Doing that virtually takes for granted that violence will happen for which we can then have the pleasure of blaming someone.
What if we'd rather prevent violence? We could go ahead and hector the infidels and savages until they change the way they think. But is that all we should do? Too many people impose a false choice at this point, as if the moral burden must fall entirely on one side or the other. If you suggest that prudence dictates restraining the provocateur, you'll be accused of coddling those savages who should instead be pressured to learn self-restraint as soon as possible. Why, however, should they alone learn self-restraint? It seems to me that anyone who reads the news from Florida and Afghanistan objectively would agree with me that Rev. Jones and his Afghan counterparts are all idiots. Shouldn't all idiots be made to learn? I myself have felt like burning a Qur'an sometimes, and I suspect my impulse was much like Jones's. When I'm in that mood, my idea is that I want the Muslims to take it and like it, so to speak. Does that impulse justify putting anyone else on the planet in danger? I have my doubts, but that doesn't mean that I concede the principle that Muslims are entitled to kill people who "insult" their faith. There simply has to be a way to change their attitude other than insulting them until they give up. That other way has to be found, but the case can be made -- a mock trial could be held to prove the point, perhaps -- that Jones's approach is counterproductive to the point of liability. In short, Muslims' susceptibility to provocation is a problem, but so is the impulse to provoke -- not criticize, but provoke Muslims. Jones wasn't shouting "fire" in a crowded theater; he was setting the theater on fire, and now he blames the tinder for burning. "Idiot" is too kind a word for him, and "fools" is too kind for his Afghan brothers.