Remember Terry Jones? He’s the dim-witted Florida preacher who burned a pile of Korans a couple of years ago. It inflamed anti-Americanism across the Middle East, undermined U.S. diplomacy, and earned Jones a top spot on an Al Queda hit list.
Jones is a perfect test case for freedom of expression, perhaps better than the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. After all, Charlie Hebdo fit snugly within the French mainstream. It thumbed its nose at intolerance and hypocrisy in religion, government and business. In doing so, it embodied France's secular values and its laughter, which is why the murderous attack on Jan. 7 was so devastating, and why millions rallied around the paper (even if few of them read it).
The better test for freedom of expression comes from a humorless outlier like Terry Jones. He is hateful and intolerant. His message hurts our national reputation and endangers our diplomats, business travelers and tourists. The government would have every reason to shut him down. But his First Amendment rights allow him to burn the books. He has his supporters, of course. But even those of us who are horrified by his actions can appreciate how free we are (under law, at least) to express ourselves.
This is where France has limits. While a Koran burner like Jones might not get arrested there, the country does impose targeted restrictions on speech. And they leave many, including moderate Muslims, feeling that the government has double standards. (This New Yorker piece provides excellent context and detail.) Cartoonists, for example, are free to lampoon Mohammed, because religions are fair game, but it’s illegal to disparage groups of people or even the president.
In the long run, it might be better for France to open the way for more irresponsible, unfair or hateful messages, communication that angers and unsettles the great secular majority. People will complain. But the upshot will be clear: Go ahead and battle with words and images. That’s how civilized societies fight.