Friday, 10 September 2010

On burning Korans and denying Holocausts

To Muslims, both Jews and Christians are 'people of the book'. This makes Pastor Terry Jones's chest-pumping all the more depressing. And at least Berlusconi runs a country.

How sad, too, that all books will soon be online. It may solve problems like that created by Pastor Jones's wanting to burn one, since publicly deleting computer files doesn't quite have the same style. But it would create another one: now bigots everywhere will have to return to burning other things, like people. I'll bet they can't wait.

Anyway, about burning the Koran:

  • Pastor Terry Jones and those like him are unpleasant, dangerous people who abuse the spirit if not the laws of democracy, and are cowards because they use its laws as cover for that abuse. Jones encourages other bigots, including Islamic ones, to do the same and worse. He should not burn the Koran or encourage others to do it. He should shut up.
  • The American government's response, which is to discourage rather than prohibit his words and actions, is the right and noble one, and in keeping with the spirit that Jones so crassly offends, even if it sits ill with its foreign policy and may be the death of many of us some day soon (I'm thinking by the end of the next decade here and I have decided to move to west Wales, which is upwind of most catastrophes I can foresee).

Reporting the controversy, the BBC today contrasted the American response with what European countries might do in the same situation and noted that denying the existence of the Holocaust is illegal in 16 of them.

But I don't think it should be illegal to deny the Holocaust, any more than it should be illegal for Pastor Jones to be a nasty man and offend people, whether they want to be offended or not.

Having a vile, self-serving or pecuniary motive for holding an opinion does not invalidate it; sound contrary evidence does. If someone thinks they can prove that the Holocaust didn't happen, or happened differently, they should be free to say why they think so. Their evidence can then be weighed against the opposing evidence.

Governments should foster respect for truth above falsehood, and open debate in a spirit of good will is a fine way to go about it. If Holocaust deniers are wrong - and I presume the governments of all the 16 European states believe this; as, by the way, do I - it's better if people see that they're wrong than not, and better to have their views in the open than underground. If they're right, or if their evidence causes some revision of what we believe to be true, well, we'll just have to deal with that.

I recently went to an education conference on 'valuing people' - or some other publicly funded, recession-proofed gagfest; they tend to blur into each other - where 'not valuing people' rapidly came to be epitomised by the British National Party rather than our own petty inadequacies, which would have been much more pertinent. By this means, 'not valuing people' was somehow blithely equated with a return to Nazism, Apartheid and segregation in the deep South. The hall was stuffed with teachers; perhaps some were history teachers, although I hope not, because their silence wouldn't have said much in their favour.

I commented that the connections being made weren't just historically and culturally illiterate but played into the BNP's hands: that odious party benefits because both national and local governments see the issues it exploits as outside the compass of open and reasoned debate. More silence, except for one or two groans and the sound of urgent scribbling by the head of my organisation in her notebook.

Are governments really scared of racists, anti-semites, religious bigots and homophobes, or of what they assume is our stupidity when confronted by them?

Let them, and others, speak.

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