Pastor Terry Jones is still a familiar name for most of the Pakistanis as well as many Muslims around the world who are avid consumers of local media. Jones is a pastor of a nondenominational Christian Church in Florida who gained world attention in 2010 when he announced to burn Quran. He subsequently did it in 2011, 2012 and 2014 despite repeated appeals and warnings by U.S. political and military elites that his action might generate violent reaction in Muslim countries.
And it did. Several U.N. workers among at least 20 people killed in subsequent protests in Afghanistan. Almost all Muslim countries witnessed violent protests. Later Pastor Jones was reported to be involved in the promotion of an anti-Islam movie ‘Innocence of Muslims’ which resulted in the attacks on U.S. embassy in Cairo and Consulate in Benghazi in which U.S. Ambassador in Libya and three other U.S. citizens were killed.
I still remember the scathing headlines of Pakistani newspapers on Pastor Jones’ announcement and his burning of Quran. I also remember how that media coverage fueled anti-American sentiments among the masses. The criticism at that time was mostly directed towards the U.S. administration as it was perceived ‘unwilling’ to stop the pastor. Though then-President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and top U.S. military officials condemned Pastor Jones and his acts they were ineffective to stop him as he was exercising his ‘freedom of expression’ guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
But for the millions of Muslims around the world it was hard to understand how can a person be allowed to exercise his ‘freedom of expression’ if it hurts a billion others. So many Muslims considered that incident as ‘another proof’ of U.S.’ perceived animosity towards Islam and Muslims.
Even though the top U.S. leadership openly condemned Jones’ anti-Islam rhetoric and his acts, it coasted the U.S. a lot. The incident fueled hatred towards the U.S. among millions of Muslims, badly affected U.S. public outreach efforts in Muslim majority countries, and resulted in killings of dozens of people and attacks on U.S. installments around the world. And it happened when the U.S. top leadership was in the forefront in condemning Pastor Jones and his acts.
Imagine how destructive this reaction could have been if the U.S. President or any of his advisors instead of condemning the incident had openly said that Terry Jones is exercising his ‘freedom of expression’ and Muslims should respect his right. It can still happen. If any such incident happened during Trump Presidency Muslims around the world generally will take it as a “collective will of the U.S. and its people” (because of President Trump’s perception as anti-Muslim) and thus the reaction will be more destructive and harmful for the U.S. and its interests.
So the question is whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Synder v. Phelps can be applied in all such incidents or there might be (or should be) some exceptions. The ruling is based on the determination that the Westboro Baptist Church was speaking on “matters of public concern.” But people like Terry Jones also claim that their rhetoric is a matter of public concern because they believe Islam or Muslims (or Jews or any other minority group, for example) are a threat to the U.S. and its society.
So can it be allowed even if it falls in the ambit of hate speech and promotes hatred? I think this principle that people may speak of their mind if the matter is of public concern or interest or value should have some limitations. Free speech should be promoted in a society and people should be allowed to speak of their mind even if they think that certain group or a religion is harming the society or its values. There should be a healthy debate on any of such concerns and everyone should be allowed to present their point of view. But there must be a mechanism to moderate this public debate so that it doesn’t turn into hate speech.
“Freedom of Expression” is a blessing if it is exercised wisely and can promote harmony and understanding. But Terry Jones’ example shows that the irresponsible use of this freedom may harm national interests, create law and order situation and turn millions of people against each other.