By Omar Sacirbey
Religion News Service
(RNS) A few bullet holes may be the difference between a burnt Quran left at a mosque in Knoxville, Tenn., and one left at a mosque in East Lansing, Mich.
On Tuesday (Sept. 21), Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings said the man who allegedly left a burnt Quran outside the Islamic Center of Lansing on Sept. 11 would not face charges because the act doesn't fall under Michigan's criminal code.
In contrast, FBI agents in Knoxville are still determining whether whoever left a burnt and shot Quran at the entrance to the Annoor Mosque committed a hate crime, based on a 1968 law that makes it a federal offense to use force to prevent anyone from carrying out their religious beliefs.
"The fact that the burnt and shot Quran was placed on mosque property can be construed as a threat of force," said Knoxville FBI special agent Richard L. Lambert. "The issue comes down to determining what was the perpetrator's intent."
Lambert said that if the Annoor Mosque incident does not fall under federal hate crime, it could still be prosecuted under Tennessee's civil rights intimidation law, or other state misdemeanor laws, such as disorderly conduct.
Following a spate of Quran burnings this month, Muslim Americans and legal experts are wrangling over whether burning Islam's holy book is an exercise of free speech, or a hate crime, akin to burning a cross.
The answer depends on whether the intent is to insult or intimidate, and it most cases intimidation can be tough to prove, legal experts say.
"It's virtually out of the question," said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which monitors hate crimes.
"The government can punish speech only if it's a 'true threat,' which is to say speech expressly intended and likely to create an imminent fear of bodily injury," said Daniel Mach, a senior attorney with the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
U.S. Muslim groups also acknowledge that burning a Quran in many scenarios -- for example, when done on one's private property -- is constitutionally protected free speech. The threatened Quran burn by Florida pastor Terry Jones, or actual Quran burns by Kansas pastor Fred Phelps, are protected forms of speech.
But many also believe that in the cases of the burnt Qurans left anonymously at mosques -- especially books with bullet holes -- it's hard to construe any intent other than intimidation.
The Michigan chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations has called on federal law enforcement officials to consider bringing federal hate crime charges in the East Lansing case against the alleged perpetrator, who turned himself in on Sept. 15 after police announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
"If the KKK burns a cross on private property, that's legal. But if they burn a cross at an African-American church, that's a hate crime," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman at CAIR's Washington headquarters.
"It's the same with a Quran. If you burn a Quran in your backyard or in your church, that's free speech. But if you leave a burnt Quran at the entrance of mosque, you're trying to scare people."
Intimidation became an important threshold in 2003, when the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law against cross-burning where the intent is to intimidate, but also said cross-burning itself is not evidence of intimidation.
The 1968 Federal Hate Crimes Law made it a federal offense to attack or intimidate someone based on race, religion or national origin. The 2009 Matthew Shepard Act expanded federal hate crimes protections to include gender and sexual orientation.
Members of the Islamic Center of Greater Lansing said they forgave the individual who left the burnt Quran, and said they want to put the case behind them. But they also wouldn't discourage CAIR from pressing the FBI to pursue charges.
A spokeswoman in the FBI Detroit office said she could not confirm or deny whether they were investigating the case.
"We felt intimidated," said Thasin Sardar, a worshipper at the mosque, which requested police security for the week following the incident. Parents with children at the mosque's school were especially panicked, Sardar said. "They don't want to let people think its open season on Muslims."