04/05/2011 12:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2011

After Quran Burning, The Need to Put People First

A quirky Florida sect has finally carried out its threat to burn the Quran. Once again the obscure sect was rewarded with worldwide attention.

The absurdly named Dove Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., claims that burning the Quran is an act of freedom of expression articulating the view that Islam is evil. Moreover, the virulent animosity stirred up in the Muslim world by the Quran burning only proves their point.

They accept no responsibility for ensuing riots in Afghanistan that resulted in many deaths, including nine rioters in the Taliban hotbed of Kandahar, Afghanistan, and 11 deaths in an insurgent-organized attack on the U.N. compound in the northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif.

What is expression?

Burning books is a strange way of promoting freedom of expression, but there is a precedent for burning flags and burning political leaders in effigy as a form of legitimate political expression. The Quran is a symbol of the religion: hence the burning.

The World Trade Center was also a symbol -- of American imperialism -- and thus targeted for destruction by al Qaeda. If burning books is "expression," how about burning office towers with workers in them? We are much more upset at the idea of homicidal self expression than at the burning of books.

The Muslim world, however, seems to be much more incensed by the burning of their religious text than they are by arbitrary destruction of human life, whether by suicide bombers, American drone attacks or religious stonings.

What is freedom?

Lawyers have an old saying that one must not yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Freedom of expression is contingent on responsible assessment of possible harm arising from one's actions. Or, as John Stewart Mill expressed it, "The right to swing one's fist ends with one's neighbor's nose."

Unlike the Florida sect, the Dutch really care about freedom of expression and felt that it was being seriously eroded by conservative Muslims among them. Hence the publication of cartoons portraying Mohammed as a terrorist and other depictions that proved deeply offensive to Muslims around the world, inciting protests and riots in which about 100 people died.

The newspaper putting out these cartoons, Jyllands-Posten, may not have accurately predicted the consequences, at least for the first printing. In effect, this was exactly like crying "Fire!" in the crowded theater and many innocent people died in the ensuing stampede. Knowing the likely consequence means that burning Qurans in Gainesville, or anywhere else, is an act of criminal mischief.

Should we respect religion?

There is no need to respect any particular religion, such as Islam, or all religions. Religious people often claim high ground for themselves and their faiths but are not particularly ethical in their conduct.

With freedom of expression comes responsibility -- in this case, to avoid needless bloodshed by pointless burning of qurans. Does this mean that the terrorists have won and that they are enforcing sharia throughout the world and denying us of free speech by censoring opportunities to criticize Islam? Not really. There are other, less inflammatory, less deadly, ways of criticizing Islam.

Under our system of government, no one is obliged to respect any particular religion. What we do respect is another person's freedom of thought. That means that if someone is an atheist, they are entitled to express the opinion that all religions are substantially works of fiction.

How about respecting people?

We do not need to respect either Christianity or Islam, as belief systems, just the right of individuals to believe them. We do, however, need to recognize that religious identity and symbols are important for many people throughout the world.

The Dutch cartoons were inflammatory, not because they depicted the face of Mohammad but because they depicted him in an unflattering way that was perceived as deliberately insulting. Burning the Quran is viewed similarly except that this is also considered an unspeakable blasphemy in a part of the world that does not guarantee freedom of religion, much less freedom of expression.

Instead of respecting religion, we need to respect people. We can begin by respecting their right to life.