This year, the observations of the anniversary of the September 11 Attacks were somewhat overshadowed by the controversies about the Mosque proposed at the site of the attack on the World Trade Center and the plan to burn a Koran, the Islamic holy book. The public debate was focused on freedom, rights and prudence.
Nearly every commentator accepts the rights of the individuals to build a mosque at the September 11 site or to burn the Koran, but many find these actions imprudent. I agree that these actions would be imprudent, but I am among those who doubt these individuals have a right or freedom to do as they wish.
Both individuals enjoy the freedom of religion and speech. They also have property rights. But neither freedoms nor rights are absolute. In these two cases in particular, I do not believe these individuals necessarily have the freedom or right to act in the manner in which they wish.
One cannot have a place of worship wherever one wants. For example, there are local restrictions on the use of buildings, such as zoning laws. In this case, the mosque would symbolize military conquest by militant Islam (See my August post, A Mosque at the September 11 Site Would Represent a Militant Islamic Victory), which would aid the enemy.
Although one also has the freedom to speak, one does not have the right to engage in whatever actions one desires, such as a violent act, in order to express one’s opinion. Like restrictions on property rights, municipalities also ban the burning of materials for safety reasons, regardless of any motivation to express one’s views.
Burning something is not an example of freedom of speech, but an act – a violent one, at that. It is incendiary both literally and figuratively. There is no broad freedom of expression that would include such acts. There is a difference between freedom of expression and specific freedoms to engage in certain forms of expression, such as speech (oral communication) or writing (the freedom of the press), assembly, petitioning, etc. Not all forms of expression are permitted and even the specific acknowledged freedoms may be limited for good reasons.
Some have argued, for example, that burning the Koran is like yelling “Fire!” in a movie theater – a famous example of speech that is prohibited. Because burning something is not speech, but an act, it is easier to make a case that it may be a prohibited form of expression. Nevertheless, the analogy does suggest that inflammatory actions, whether in the forms of spoken words or not, can be prohibited for good reason.
In this case, burning the Koran would aid the militant Muslim enemy, even if unintentionally, by providing it religious justification for opposing the United States for tolerating the desecration of the holy book of Islam.
One right we cannot claim is a right not to be offended. However, it is imprudent and unnecessary to desecrate the holy book of another religion or insulting its figures. Such actions would be true examples of provocations. One can express opposition to Islam without desecrating or insulting its figures. Thus, although one may not have a freedom to physically desecrate by burning, we have the freedom of religious expression, which includes the freedom to oppose another religion. However, one may make a point without going out of one’s way to offend others.
Although the freedom of religious expression may include the freedom to insult venerated religious figures, prudence should be exercised. Regardless of whether one has a freedom or right to say or do something, it may be imprudent to do it. We can acknowledge one’s freedom while expecting one to act responsibly. We have rights not to do what we want, but in order to do what we ought.