Our Laws Regarding Free Speech Don’t Apply to Afghani Culture

Julie Water’s point about the terms we use to describe what Terry Jones did provides me with a wonderful opportunity to illustrate why we need to be crystal clear about which context we’re talking about when dealing differing societies having different norms.

Julie Waters: Do we not understand the difference between incitement and offense?

It also provides me with an opportunity to point out that after an intervention (in this case, and invasion), trying to impose a democratic regime on a society may be a fools errand.

What was originally going to be a lengthy reply seems better as a short, concise diary.

I don’t know when the video of the “trial” and “sentence” was posted online, nor do I know the character of the events in Mazir-e-Sharif, but what I hear is that it was one of the quietest places in Afghanistan and it takes some time to get this stuff organized. Absent an obvious target, a UN office was targeted rather than a more difficult military unit.

There are other reasons why this was inevitable.

To a certain extent, what Jones did was analogous to the controversy over the Danish cartoon, so your point is well taken. Free speech is free speech. However:

This led to Islamic protests across the Muslim world, some of which escalated into violence with instances of firing on crowds of protestors (resulting in a total of more than 100 reported deaths), including setting fire to the Danish Embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, storming European buildings, and burning the Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, French and German flags in Gaza City.

We might take it as a measure of their fitness for the democratic regime we are trying to impose on them, that it is quite likely the tolerance, responsibility and niceties of practice we’ve developed (not without controversies of our own, mind you. How do you feel about flag burning?) that come with our freedoms are alien concepts to them.

Afghan perspectives on “democracy”:

A central theme that emerged from the responses was that many Afghans have negative associations attached to the word “democracy” itself. In the view of many Afghans we spoke to, the idea of democracy extends far beyond elections and parliamentary politics to encompass an entire package of Western liberal values, where freedom is equated with an absence of rules, immorality, and secularism. As one interviewee put it: “some people think that democracy is unlimited freedom, or doing anything you want to do, or wearing any type of clothing.” Or another: “for the youth in the cities, the word ‘democracy’ just means having a good life and watching TV.”

I work in a bookstore. We have been given a shelving rule that any copies of the Qur’an we stock must be on the top shelf. It’s a measure of devotion to some that no other book be “above” the Qur’an. I know of at least one instance when a Muslim customer got quite upset over finding another text shelved above the Qur’an.

Burning one was a deliberate incitement even so. Jones’ act that you correctly point out in context of US law as protected speech is a legal and philosophical nicety inapplicable to Afghans in their context. Trying to equate our laws to their culture isn’t going to fly, I’m afraid.

Crazy as it may sound to us, it may well be that burning a Qur’an to them is about what 9/11 means to us.


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