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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The Conservatives' social care woes are real

The "dementia tax" has made waves in the marginals - and not in a good way.

Will the dementia tax cost Theresa May her house? That's the gag in Morten Morland's cartoon in the Times this morning, which depicts a pair of elderly voters angrily remonstrating with the PM outside Downing Street. To make matters worse, that paper reports that the plan may may fall apart anyway due to other problems in social care. "Care crisis threatens to scupper May reforms" is their splash.

I was out and about in Bath, Newport and Gower this weekend and it was clear to me that the Conservatives' social care policy has made waves in the marginals and not in a good way. That's not just my impression, either. As Denis Campbell and Rowena Mason report in the Guardian, Conservative candidates are uneasy about the reaction too. The blame game is already underway, with Conservative sources telling the FT's Jim Pickard that the plan was rushed through at the last minute without consulting the Cabinet.

That the polls are all showing Labour closing the gap with the Conservatives. That might just be noise - Labour tends to peak a few weeks out from an election. In 1997, they were polling at or above 50 per cent at this stage in the race, they got 43 per cent. In 2001, they were again hovering around the 50 per cent mark and then got 41 per cent. In 2005, they were on 40 per cent and ended up with 35 per cent. In 1987 they were at 35 per cent and ended up with 30 per cent. In 1983 they were at 35 per cent and got 27 per cent. But that pattern doesn't always hold and it might not this time either.

The Conservatives' big hope is that in the final weeks they will unleash everything they've dug up on Jeremy Corbyn and his inner circle, turning around the polls. First up: the Labour leader's dealings with the IRA in the 1980s. Corbyn's refusal to condemn the IRA's bombings exclusively - he instead said he condemned "all bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA" - on the Sophy Ridge programme yesterday is picked up in today's papers. "Corbyn engulfed in IRA furore" is the Telegraph's splash and "Corbyn's kick in the teeth for IRA victims" is the Mail's.

Will it work? Maybe. The Conservatives' poll ratings still have a way to fall before they have genuine cause for panic and the historical trends still point to them improving on their current position in the polls and significantly increasing their strength in the House of Commons.

But the difficulty for the PM is that that her victory, if it comes, looks less and less like an endorsement for her ripping up of Conservative heresies and more and more like a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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