Burning the Koran: A Christian critical response

His Grace Archbishop Cranmer, The Daily Mail, the BBC and the Christian Institute among others have reported on the story that a 15-year-old girl from around the Birmingham area has been arrested for burning an English language Koran, videotaping the ordeal and then posting it on the internet. The girl was accused of inciting religious hatred.

Inmate readingThe reaction of His Grace and the CI leave some important analysis untouched. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Cranmer and the CI sped into comparisons of how the Bible has been treated in recent years, such as by being defaced in the name of art at a Glasgow city art gallery where people where asked to ‘write themselves’ into the book. Many did, and did not write kind things.

The CI point out that the Bible has been deep fried in batter (!) and sold at an auction. His Grace and the CI called for special fairness and respect of the bible and Christianity. Both blog posts call for a revaluation of special treatment that the Muslims faith get and those that the Christian faith get under protection from the law with regards to protection on the grounds of inciting religious hatred. Neither seem to be overly concerned with the specifics of the case, or why this issue might be related to a specific incident related to the school to which the girl goes and her relationship with the community there. Both posts implicitly seem to assume that Christianity and Islam are to be treated as equal minorities in need of protection under the law in the UK, and assumption I will later question.

There are three things that are needed to point out here. First a koran is not the same as a bible ontologically speaking. Second, Islam is a minority religion in this country. Third, the way we treat Muslims in this country is a witness to the difference between the Christian message of grace, and how Muslims treat Christians in predominantly Muslim countries. This offers Christians all over the world the opportunity to show a gracious reaction to injustice, and indeed might have offered the opportunity for persons and organizations who at times quite respectably represent Christianity in the Public Sphere to enunciate the Gospel, while affirming the importance of the sacred and an understanding of the sacred. After all, Christians have been told to expect persecution, and we have been told to turn the other cheek.

World War I: New Zealand troops taking Holy Communion administered by an Army chaplain in the open air.

To the first point. While I am sad that the Bible has been defaced in the name of art, for me the book is simply that, and the reality is it is how we treat our own bibles, and even more sadly how we treat God every time we sin. I am no expert in mater’s Muslim, I was once told that in Islam the Koran represents a presence of god on earth in a similar way Jesus was Gods presence on earth and the Spirit is his presence now. If in Islam god is un-knowable outside of the Koran (in its original language) then the book represents a presence, the desecration of which is like desecrating (for the Roman Catholic) of the host (wine and wafer), or for Protestants and Roman Catholics alike the desecration of Jesus’s body. Ironically, it is through such a desecration which we where saved, but that gets me into heavy theological territory for which there is no room now. So in a sense the analysis offered by His Grace and by the CI is weak from a comparative religious/theological perspective. And while I have sympathy for their concern with regards to the treatment of Christianity in this country, I think here is a moment when special pleading is not only done by ignorance but has missed a trick.

Group of friends toasting at dinner tableSecondly. Islam is a minority religion in this country and it is not a uniform religion. There is a battle going on for hearts and minds within the Muslim community which is not helped by radical racist groups seeking to humiliate and alienate Muslims by burning the Koran. Using this example reported in the national news, without understanding the context on the ground opens the danger of misunderstanding the facts of the specific case. We also now know that the girl in question may have been given a hard time by some of her fellow students. If indeed she was bullied and saw the burning of a Koran as a way to get back at her bullies, the dimension of the case takes on a whole new meaning. Finally, if the girl was from a Muslim background the story would change again completely. Arresting her would be the best way to get her out of a situation in which she might be ill treated. The specifics of the placy-ness of the case are important. They should not be forgotten.

Pilgrims. Illustration by Etienne Dinet (1861-1929) for La Vie de Mohammed, Prophete d'Allah (The Life of Mohammed, Prophet of Allah).

Third, protecting, indeed humoring the humanity of Muslims in this country, by upholding and protecting the sacredness of their text attests to the values on which this country was built. Our constitution recognizes the difference and value of different people and people of different faiths. This value moreover means that it is even more important to protect those who are guests in our country to be offered a hospitality which we would hope their country might offer us as sojourners in the world. While this is not always the case, it is something we here can be righteously proud of.

Of course this does not mitigate the importance of upholding and protecting our corner. However, we will lose our political capital if the only thing we do is complain, and in particular complain in a way that does not offer a constructive means of subverting the reasons behind why somebody might desecrate the Bible. Shrill complaint means that people hear the shrill, not the complaint.

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