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There's no .44-caliber Koran

It's easy to go too far when banning words in the name of preventing violence.

April 29, 2007|Ian Buruma | IAN BURUMA, is the author, most recently, of "Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance." He is a professor at Bard College and a contributing editor to The Times' opinion pages.

JULIUS STREICHER, publisher of Der Sturmer and other anti-Semitic publications, was executed in 1946 for crimes against humanity. His crimes consisted largely of words, hateful words that helped to justify mass murder.

It is a common assumption that words can kill. That is presumably why the right-wing Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, recently argued that if Muslims wished to live in the Netherlands, they should "tear up half the Koran and throw it away." There is no doubt that the Koran, like other ancient religious texts, contains violent passages about the fate of unbelievers. Just as Jews, during some traditional Passover feasts, ask God to bring down his wrath on the Gentiles who "don't know him," and many Christians believe that hell awaits those who don't subscribe to their faith, Muslims are led to believe that killing the enemies of Islam can be justified.

But are the words of the Koran, in fact, the main reason for political violence in the Middle East or Europe, perpetrated in the name of the faith?

Book-burners and others who make a fetish of words would say yes. But there is room for skepticism. To be sure, Islamist terrorists use the Koran to justify murderous actions, but the actual reasons for their holy war are generally political and not theological. Their main enemies are secular dictatorships in the Middle East, corrupted, in their view, by the decadent, soulless West. This revolutionary cause is influencing disaffected Muslims in Europe. Censoring the Koran would do nothing to stop this. Without meaning to be disrespectful to the Koran, or the Jewish Haggadah, which contains the wrathful passage mentioned above, there is an analogy to be drawn with the debate on violent movies or pornography. They too can be hateful. But do people commit crimes because of them? Probably not.

There are many violent and hateful words in novels, operas, churches, mosques, comic books, radio talk shows and so on. There has to be a balance between our desire for free speech and the protection against potential violence. Most democracies, including the United States, whose Constitution protects the right to free speech, have laws that forbid the use of words that incite violence.

Some democracies, such as France and Germany, also use the law to ban offensive opinions, such as denying the Holocaust, even when violence is not threatened. Some have laws that forbid insulting people on the grounds of race or creed. And some religious believers go out of their way to sanitize the ancient texts. Many modern versions of the Haggadah leave out the offending passage.

It is easy to go too far, however. If we censor anything that might cause offense, we undermine our right to free speech. In a recent production of "The Magic Flute" in New York, the English translation of the libretto, which was sung in German, left out all disobliging references to women and to the dark skin of Monostatos, the Moor. This is a clear example of going too far. Mozart's librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, certainly was not promoting aggression against women or black people.

Some Muslim zealots believe that any "offense" to the prophet means holy war and merits the murder of the offender. But it would certainly be wrong to accuse Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses," or the controversial Danish cartoons of Muhammad, of deliberately inciting violence.

One thing wrong with Geert Wilders and others who would ban parts of the Koran or other texts they regard as dangerous is their refusal to recognize context. It isn't only a question of what words are expressed but who expresses them, where and to whom. A disparaging Jewish joke sounds different when it is made by a Gentile. Language used by black rap artists about other blacks becomes much more toxic when it is used by a white radio talk show host. Violent sentiments voiced by a heavy metal rock group would be far more disturbing if they were expressed by a powerful politician.

When it comes to banning hateful words, it must be imperative to show that they are designed to cause violence and, moreover, that they are likely to do so. Banning or censoring historic texts seems pointless because they can be put in the framework of the times when they were written. The reading of "Mein Kampf" may have led to mass murder in the past, but it is unlikely to do so now. Germans, on the other hand, are perhaps more justified in banning the book than, say, the British. There is, of course, a problem with believers who view ancient texts as the words of God and thus as valid for all times. But instead of censoring the books, we should focus on how they are used. If they are used to provoke violence, then the people who do so are breaking the law and must be dealt with accordingly.

The trouble with banning words is that it helps to fetishize them. Those who defy the ban can claim to be martyrs for their faith but also for free speech. And the forbidden acquires a special allure. The constitutional right to say almost anything makes U.S. citizens relatively cautious, perhaps too cautious, about the way they use that right. Like the obsessive desire for pornography, the craving for violent words tends to gain in strength when freedom of expression is not readily available.

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