If you burn a Quran, yes, you should go to jail

To defend actions of this sort on the basis of free speech is to miss the point.

If you burn a Quran you should go to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect £100.

Sorry if that sounds a bit intolerant. Brashly illiberal. But these happy arsonists who think it's a giggle to torch a religious text and screw the consequences aren't averse to a bit of brash intolerance themselves.

Actually that's not right. It's not that they're averse to the consequences. They're all too aware of them. Social division and disorder are the ends, a box of matches, jerrycan of petrol and Waterstone's discount card the means.

At the weekend the BNP joined the list of those endorsing this particularly pernicious branch of DIY. The Observer was passed a video showing a "Sion Owens, 40, from south Wales and a candidate for the forthcoming Welsh Assembly elections, soaking the Quran in kerosene and setting fire to it".

The reaction from the Welsh police was swift: "We always adopt an extremely robust approach to allegations of this sort and find this sort of intolerance unacceptable in our society." Owens was arrested, charged and subsequently released, though he was informed that "investigations were continuing and that "almost certainly other proceedings will ensue".

Good. Nicking Nazi pyromaniacs is what I want my police to be doing. It's what we all want our police to be doing, isn't it?

Apparently not. According to Alex Massie in the Spectator, "even goons and other dreadful people have rights and these should include the right to burn books in their garden". And the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan believes that burning the Quran "makes you a dummkopf, not a criminal . . . Some other countries fight false ideas with the force of law. We should fight them with truth."

Actually Daniel, we should fight them with both.

Think of a motive

Those who defend Quran-burning on the basis of free speech miss the point. For a start, it's not free. It requires someone to go out, buy a book, buy petrol (not even cheap at the moment, never mind free), light it, film the whole thing and then distribute the proceedings to whatever little clique they call their friends, or more widely on YouTube or some other "social" medium. This is an overt, conscious action, motivated by malign intent. It is not the product of open, free-spirited discourse, but an aggressive, premeditated provocation.

Nor is it actually speech. It's not opening a dialogue or building an argument. Quite the opposite. It's a deliberate act of destruction; the destruction of a dialogue and argument constructed by others. If you don't like Islam, fine. Write a book about why. Don't burn one.

Those who see the heavy hand of the law as a disproportionate response to this act of bibliophobia are themselves losing perspective.

It's not just the action, it's the consequences. We know what Quran-burning leads to. In the past couple of weeks it has resulted in innocent people being murdered and maimed. It's increased the threat to British and western troops serving overseas. It's boosted the Taliban and other terrorist organisations.

If our laws do not exist to prevent people from deliberately engaging in actions and activity that incite others to murder, propagate international terrorism and lay the seeds of civil disorder, what are they for?

We have laws to protect a book's copyright. We have laws to protect the intellectual rights of the person who wrote and published it. But we shouldn't have laws to prevent that book being treated in a manner that leads to half a dozen people being decapitated?

Hannan writes that anyone who burned a Quran would argue that they are "not to blame for any bloody consequences and, in a sense, this is true: any retaliation will be entirely the responsibility of its perpetrators". But the law does not hold to account solely those who perpetrate the final criminal act. That's why it's not just illegal to use a firearm, or drugs, but also illegal to supply them.

Brag all about it

There are always difficulties in drawing a line between rights and responsibilities, but Quran-burning seems a good place to start.

There's an old saying that free speech doesn't extend to running into a theatre and shouting, "Fire!"

Personally, I think it depends on context. I haven't got a problem with someone doing that, so long as there's no one else in there, or it's a production by Tim Rice.

It's the same principle. If you have a desperate urge to put the Quran, or any other book, to the flame, and you do so in genuine privacy, then I suppose there's nothing I or anyone else can do about it, because we won't be any the wiser.

But if you brag about it, or taunt others with it, or use it as a weapon to prosecute your war of intolerance and prejudice, don't be surprised if you suddenly find a few members of Her Majesty's Constabulary on your doorstep.

You know the game that you're playing. Please spare us the crocodile tears when you lose.

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Northern Ireland is another Brexit circle Theresa May must square

The Prime Minister's promise to avoid border controls could collide with the imperative of limiting EU immigration. 

For much of the EU referendum, Theresa May shrewdly adopted the low profile of a "reluctant Remainer". One of her few memorable interventions was over Northern Ireland. During a visit to the province (which voted Remain by 56-44), the then home secretary said that it was "inconceivable" that new border controls would not be imposed in the event of Brexit. "If we were out of the European Union with tariffs on exporting goods into the EU, there’d have to be something to recognise that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland," May warned. "And if you pulled out of the EU and came out of free movement, then how could you have a situation where there was an open border with a country that was in the EU and had access to free movement?"

Yet as prime minister, May has visited Northern Ireland today with a diametrically opposed message. She will support the Irish government's stance that there should be no "hard border" between Northern Ireland and the Republic and that passport-free travel should continue. 

There is an awareness among the EU of the disruptive effect that new controls would have on the peace process. "It's a special situation and it has to be found a special place in the negotiations," François Hollande said during a recent meeting with Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny. But how special, like so much else, depends on the deal the UK strikes with the rest of the EU. If Britain imposes limited controls on free movement (such as an "emergency brake") and, at the very least, maintains visa-free travel, it will easier to maintain present arrangements with Northern Ireland. But should May bow to pressure from Conservative MPs and others to fully end free movement, it will be harder to justify an open Irish border.

As in the case of Scotland, the imperative of preserving the UK collides with the imperative of unifying the Tories. "Brexit means Brexit," May has repeatedly stated. But beyond leaving the EU, there is no agreement on what this means. For both Scotland and Northern Ireland, the best Brexit would be a "soft" version that preserves as much of the status quo as possible (through Single Market membership). But Tory MPs and many Leave supporters voted for a harder variety. Reconciling these poles will be the defining task of May's premiership. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.