Draw, Don’t Burn

It occurred to me that it may not be perfectly obvious to everybody why I and many others endorsed and participated in Everybody Draw Mohammed Day but I oppose Terry Jones’s idea to burn the Koran. If you think the two acts are similar or comparable, you are utterly confused.

The first critical point here is that, as Sarah Palin pointed out, people have a political right to burn the Koran, as they have the political right to burn the flag or the Christian Bible. But just because you have a political right to do something, doesn’t make it moral.

As I argued with respect to Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, it is perfectly moral to draw Mohammed, even in a disparaging way. Doing so constitutes (or at least may constitute) a constructive addition to the cultural discussion and state some sort of interesting point.

On the other hand, burning the Koran is a repulsive and immoral act, simply because burning any book to protest the contents of the book is repulsive. The way to fight bad ideas is to argue against them, not try to wipe them out of existence. This point is especially poignant given the Christian penchant for burning groundbreaking scientific texts during the Middle Ages.

Consider the worst book I can imagine, Hitler’s Mein Kampf. While I don’t have the stomach to read it, I want people like Stephen Hicks to read it and explain to the world precisely why it is so evil.

I regard the Koran as basically a bad book because it demands total personal sacrifice to a false supernaturalist construct. While debate rages about the proper interpretation of the text, nobody can seriously dispute the fact that the book has inspired many to commit grotesque acts of violence, oppress and abuse women, and murder homosexuals and “infidels.” But the goal should be to read the book, understand it, and explain why it’s wrong.

All that said, the very fact that the Obama administration has warned about possible Islamist violence in the wake of a Koran burning illustrates the vicious nature of the violent incarnations of the religion. Burning a book, so long as it’s your copy of the book, violates nobody’s rights. Hurting or killing somebody obviously does. Burning a book should not be a crime; committing vioence against another person properly is. If Muslims seriously regarded their beliefs as a “religion of peace,” they would not respond to a book burning with violence.

While it is wrong to burn any book to protest its contents, it is immeasurably more evil—and properly against the law—to physically hurt or threaten people for their beliefs or expressions.

May 30, 2017 Update: I would no longer argue that burning a book necessarily is “immoral.” It can be immoral, and more often it can be stupid and counterproductive. —Ari Armstrong


Where’s the Argument

You say “it is wrong to burn any book to protest its contents.”

You have not made any type of case to back this up. I can think of many cases where burning a book is a legitimate SYMBOL of rational defiance and love of liberty. Under the right circumstances and for the right reasons, and this excludes the Christian pastor Jones, burning the Koran would be a legitimate means of protesting its disgusting contents.

Usually, I agree with your views. But this comes across as the same mealy mouthed timidity I hear from Conservatives.

D. Bandler
September 10, 2010

Book Burning Is Anti-Intellectual

Very good piece that nails the essential issue. Book burning, while it should be legal, is as anti-intellectual, and therefore as anti-reason, anti-thought, and immoral as it gets in terms of activism. It is completely impractical in the effort to persuade people that a religion (and any and all religion for that matter in my view) is bad. It shows complete contempt and indifference to ideas and philosophy as such.

September 10, 2010

Why is Burning a Book Repulsive?


You write, “On the other hand, burning the Koran is a repulsive and immoral act, simply because burning any book to protest the contents of the book is repulsive.”

But why is burning any book to protest its contents repulsive? For example, apparently a book came out a few years ago which accused George W. Bush’s grandfather of helping Hitler get in power. I wouldn’t have a problem if Bush burned the book.

Also, which important scientific texts were burned in the Middle Ages?

Neil Parille
September 11, 2010

Ari Armstrong Replies

“Mealy mouthed timidity?” I’m flat-out calling the act of burning the Koran immoral, hardly a timid position. My case is brief but unassailable: burning a book is no way to repudiate its contents, and it shows the burner to be an anti-intellectual and destructive force. In the case of the book about Bush, burning an obviously idiotic and unknown book would serve only to draw attention to it.

Ari Armstrong
September 11, 2010

Book Burning Can Be a Dramatic Expression

When done by private individuals and not government, book burning doesn’t necessarily seek to wipe out the ideas, it merely represents a dramatic rejection of them, like all effigy-burning. In particular, if the book itself is anti-intellectual, is it really anti-intellectual to burn it? I wouldn’t go out and buy a book just to burn it for a number of reasons, but if I owned a book, read it and found it abhorrently repulsive, I would destroy it rather than keep it in my home or give it away i.e. spread the bad book’s ideas further.

This Koran-burning event won’t wipe out all Korans in existence, so I see no destruction of ideas, merely a highly visible rejection of them. Of course the reasons for the rejection need to be publicized, but one person can write an article explaining why whilst ten thousand people burn their copies of the book to show their agreement.

My junior high and high school classmates burned their homework at a beach bonfire at the end of each year. If anything that was pro-intellectual. We didn’t burn reports or textbooks or anything of value. We burned the pointless drills and mindnumbing tasks we had been forced to perform (and also forced to save until year end). It was a way of putting an unpleasant past behind us with drama and finality. And marshmallows.

I don’t doubt that this Koran burning event is anti-intellectual, but I do doubt the extrapolation that all book burnings must be so. I grant you that most actual book burnings I can think of definitely sought to intimidate or threaten and had a riotous, mob-like feel to them, but actually music burnings are not all that uncommon and don’t have that same feel at all, though they have the toxicity problem to deal with. Maybe the difference is that music burnings tend to involve burning your own copy, not going out and buying something just to burn it. The latter seems more like trying to wipe out ideas, whereas the former is an expression of anger and frustration at having wasted your time and money on lousy art.

Do you think destroying a book in the privacy of your own home is moral? Is it the large-scale, organized, public nature of formal book burnings that you consider anti-intellectual, or would the destruction of any written text be immoral? If the latter, is book burning different from comment moderation on a blog?

The issue’s up in the air for me, but I don’t think your argument is unassailable as 1. book burning is not necessarily meant to repudiate the contents and 2. it is generally not morally required to spend your time refuting bad ideas.

September 14, 2010

There Is No Need to Read Some Books

I take issue with your statement that someone should read and then counter the arguments of the Koran. The basic argument of the Koran is known: some mystical creature commands you to go conquer the world and kill all who resist. I do not need to read, or even address, any of these arguments. If someone’s idea is “Let’s go kill people, and enslave their children and hear the lamentations of their women,” the only proper response involves vulgarities and Charleton Heston quotes (or maybe Dirty Harry).
Furthermore, mysticism has already been debunked; there is no need to go and stomp out each of its’ hydra-like iterations, one by one, including Mohamedanism. Therefore, the statement that the Koran should be preserved and examined in order to refute its ideas is incorrect.

September 18, 2010

Ari Armstrong Replies: My argument is not that every single person needs to read the Koran and refute it. My argument is that, if you care enough about the issue to publicly speak out against the Koran, the way to do it is to argue against it (which entails that you know at least the gist of its contents), not burn it.

Fire Is Not an Argument

Ari wrote, “Burning the Koran is a repulsive and immoral act, simply because burning any book to protest the contents of the book is repulsive.”

To put it another way, no one in debate club is allowed to go over to the other team and set their table on fire in order to win the debate. That is just not an argument.

Now, if you have some other purpose in mind for burning the book, that might be different.

Trey Peden
September 20, 2010