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Burn after reading except on 9/11? The Koran burning debate

Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., and his 50-member congregation are planning to burn the Koran on Sept. 11. And it's ignited a controversy. I personally wonder how members of the congregation who have made the switch to Kindles are going to participate in the burning -- aggressively hit the delete button?

David Petraeus says the burning will endanger our troops. Hillary Clinton says it's not the American way. Angelina Jolie thinks it's a bad idea, too! Angelina thinks so few things are bad ideas -- she once wore vials of someone's blood around her neck and kissed her brother at the Oscars -- so now we can be absolutely sure.

I know people these days don't like reading books, but this seems like a bit much.

Since when do we respond by burning things that upset us? For millennia, actually. The first fire was probably the result of a caveman being angered by some twigs he considered radical. "I'll show this kindling!" he muttered to himself, clashing his flints together. Early Christians were burned for years, and they didn't enjoy it. There was Joan of Arc. There was Nicholas Cage in "The Wicker Man" -- mostly by critics but also in a large wicker effigy. Then there were the people who insisted that the Harry Potter books were "the devil's text" and conducted small auto da fes.

Books contain volumes -- but they're fragile enough to fall victim to a hateful gesture. It's part of their charm. So burning books has a peculiar weight to it. Books are supposed to be the repository of history and cultural memory, and the ink on their pages will last for generations, even as the pages themselves slowly crumble and fall loose from the bindings. But light a match and -- boom! -- there goes the library of Alexandria.

I'd always hoped book-burning would be one of those things we'd leave behind as we grew taller and more enlightened, with better dental care. It has always struck me as truly medieval, and not in the sense that it is architecturally interesting and people are serving turkey on a spit. It's the sort of behavior that you should have to give up once they install indoor plumbing in your home.

Who does Jones think he is, Savonarola? Savonarola was, succinctly put, an angry friar who ran Renaissance Florence for a few years. He was responsible for the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, in which he committed to the flames everything he believed tended to immorality -- mirrors, books, lewd pictures, works of poets, paintings, sculptures. His message was similar to that of Jones, who says: "Instead of us backing down, maybe it's time to stand up. Maybe it's time to send a message to radical Islam that we will not tolerate their behavior." Both burned things to send a message: What we disapprove of will not be tolerated. Jones admits that Jesus didn't go around burning books -- "But I think he'd burn this one." That's probably what Savonarola thought, too. "Jesus would have hated this Botticelli painting!" he probably shouted as he personally tossed it into the fire, but in Italian. "The perspective's all off!"

Savonarola aside -- they finally got sick of him in Florence and burned him, too -- I think book-burning is always a sign that something has gone awry in your civilization. And Ray Bradbury agrees with me. In his dystopian Fahrenheit 451, "firemen" are hired to burn books as an indication that society has reached the absolute limit. Here's what one character has to say about it:

A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man's mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won't stomach them for a minute.…Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator.

But on the other side of the world, Muslims aren't helping their cause. Protest the burnings with more burnings. Great. The only people who are benefiting from this whole shebang are the ones who design and sell effigies of Terry Jones, who probably never expected this level of demand. "Everyone stop setting things on fire and listen to each other!" I scream, but my voice doesn't carry well enough.

It's impossible to boil any religion down to a single sentence, as Jones and others on both sides of the debate have tried to. To say "Christianity is purely a religion of peace" is as great a fallacy as to say "Christianity is founded on hatred." The Bible encompasses both cloud and fire, both turning the other cheek and the arm of the Lord that smiteth, and those who read and believe it have variably decided to use their swords or to beat them into plowshares. Religions are efforts to explain life and reconcile human beings to their position in the universe, and they partake of all the complexity of life, with its potential for misunderstandings, exaggerations, and oversimplifications. Most uncomplicated beliefs turn out to be wrong. For instance, I thought for years that human beings reproduced by means of storks.

Bradbury was right. "Who might be the target of the well-read man?" Books have power. Religious books, buoyed up by the credence of millions, have even more. There's a reason the term "People of the Book," describing Christians and Jews who share the Torah, carries such weight in Islam.

So how about, instead of burning the Koran, we read it? That's what I'm going to do on 9/11. I hope some people will join me. If someone gets the book-on-CD version, maybe he can burn us all a copy.

By Alexandra Petri  | September 8, 2010; 3:03 PM ET
Categories:  Petri  | Tags:  Alexandra Petri  
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Gen. David Petraeus has warned that the public burning of the Qur'an is a threat to our mission in Iraq and Afghanistan and will endanger the lives of our American troops on the battlefield. If an extreme radical religious group threatens our security and safety, is warned not to proceed and indicates that it will then, according to GW Bush and his Republican neo-conservative supporters, a preemptive attack is called for. In this case, there's only fifty of them and they're already close to Guantanamo.

Protect our troops. A peaceful religion is being hijacked by radical extremists and putting our soldiers at risk!! Why isn't Fox news calling for a War on radical Christianists? Where's the outrage from so-called "moderate" Evangelicals??

Posted by: thebobbob | September 8, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

to all,

fwiw, BOOK BURNING strongly reminds me of 1930s Germany, the "crazies" in places like Iran & the bad old Soviet Union.

while i suppose that the preacher has the RIGHT to burn someone else's holy book (this is a case of SHOULD NOT, rather than CANNOT!), it makes me truly SAD
fills me with DISGUST at anyone, who would make (or passively participate in, as on onlooker) such a public exhibition of their own BIGOTRY, unthinking PREJUDICE, obvious STUPIDITY & "lack of gray matter".

just my opinion.

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | September 8, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

radical muslims are a minority in islam, rigthoues muslims are the majority. The majority are peaceful, kind, caring, we will not fight fire with fire like the majority of you people will instead we will cary on being humble persons because the THATS our nature!

Posted by: noracob1 | September 8, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse


PLEASE tell me, as you've identified yourself as a Moslem, WHERE are the PEACE MARCHES by MILLIONS of the peaceful followers of Mohammed?

also, i would like to know WHY the moderate/peaceful Moslems ALLOWED the "radical, lunatic, fringe element" of your faith to BE "the "face of the Moslem world"
what do the peaceful VAST Majority of your faith plan to DO (rather than talk, talk & talk) to take your faith BACK from the lunatics?

TRUST ME on this as a lifelong Southern Baptist layman, IF my faith was being HIJACKED by a few CRAZIES, i WOULD do something to defend my church! = i might well get "locked up" for doing it (i went to jail in 1967 for registering voters in AL, so i'm not afraid of being arrested.), but i would DO something positive about it.

TALK IS CHEAP, moderate Moslems.= it's PAST time to DO something more!

just my opinion.

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | September 8, 2010 5:36 PM | Report abuse

Pastor Terry Jones is a disgrace, and all Christians should affirm that his disgusting actions do not represent us.

Posted by: CommonGuy | September 8, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

For a Washington Post columnist, Petri certainly has a very selective memory on the use of burning things in protest. What about all the lefties burning U.S. flags, draft cards, bras, etc. during the 1960s? These protests were all protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. Those protests are now considered to have been as American as apple pie and so will be Pastor Jones' burning of the Koran. This issue has been blown way out of proportion by the Administration and the press to curry Muslim opinion. The teachable moment is that we still have freedom of speech in this country and that is a very dangerous idea in many countries. I think the very existence of free speech and other freedoms in the U.S. is offensive to many Muslims so they are upset already. If threatened Muslim terrorist violence occurs, we are going to have to fight back again to defend our freedoms just like we have done for over 200 years. We can not let our freedoms be taken from us because of what a bunch of Muslim crackpots might do. Let Pastor Jones exercise his First Amendment rights and lets move on.

Posted by: Djones121 | September 9, 2010 7:02 AM | Report abuse

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