On the surface, the original plans of Pastor Terry Jones to burn copies of the Quran on September 11 were about religion. About protesting the ?very dangerous and very radical? elements of Islam, as he told The New York Times. But at heart, the since-cancelled protest was about the same thing That’s fuelled every other book burning in history: the fear of, and urge to eliminate, opposing ideas.
The premise is simple. If you can silence ideas, you can quash dissent (or at least minimize it). And when nobody’s protesting, you can do what you like. It was the driving force behind Spain’s torching of thousands of Mayan codices in the 16th century, everything from religious texts to astronomical charts to financial records. It resulted in the almost complete destruction of a culture’s recorded history.
The Nazis, too, knew how powerful the written word is in sustaining ideas?and ideals. Britannica Online documents that in May 1933, just four months after Hitler came to power, ?thousands of Nazi students, together with many professors, stormed university libraries and bookstores in 30 cities throughout Germany to remove tens of thousands of books written by non-Aryans and those opposed to Nazi ideology.? The books were demolished in bonfires.
But even if you disagree with the contents of a novel or religious text, there’s one thing That’s far more dangerous than what their pages could ever contain: the suppression of ideas by burning those books.
Tyrants of all stripes?religious or political, Christian or Muslim, powerful or fringe?have used the tactic. Imagine (those of you lucky enough not to have lived through it) a society where no one is allowed to disagree with authorities. Where you can’t write a blog or post your thoughts in a forum. Or, if you’ve got the time and energy, write a book about it. Nor can you find any books to help you weigh conflicting opinions. Because whether your leaders are corrupt or foolish or simply have different beliefs than yours, all the books that dare question them have been burned.
It’s the kind of oppression that has flourished under regimes in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and plenty of others. The very type of oppression that, supposedly, Western forces are fighting to eradicate. Somehow, the irony seems to have escaped Pastor Jones.
It’s understandable that every rational human being remains horrified and angry about the mass murders of September 11, 2001. Just as It’s understandable that the families of more than a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians feel the pain of losing loved ones through violence?both at the hands of occupying Western forces and insurgents. Go ahead, point your finger in any direction. Heaven knows there’s enough aggression and atrocities to go around.
We can disagree with a religion or ideology all we want. We can even fight in the name of freedom and democracy. But as soon as we start burning books, we’ve lost the battle.