Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On Burning the Quran: Why It's Really about Semiotics

BY NOW, MOST AMERICANS have learned of Rev. Terry Jones' decision to host a special pageant at his church in Gainesville, Florida.  His "Burn a Koran Day," (really more like "Burn a Koran Rush Hour") is scheduled to light up at 6 pm sharp on September 11.  According to Jones, he and some of his congregation plan to set fire to copies of the Quran to symbolize that Islam is "of the devil."

There are many questions to ask here, like, what happens at 9:01?  And, will there be smores?  And, what happens if no one shows up?  And, isn't it hot enough in Florida the way it is?

But, even more pressing issues frame this event.  Bizarrely, it's become a wildly controversial project.

Much of the controversy surrounding this commemorative event centers on the rightness or wrongness of burning the Islamic holy book, whether it violates the constitution, whether it is anti-Christian or even Anti-American.

In addition to the moral and ethical issues, there also appear to be questions of national security.  The top U. S. commander, General David Petraeus sent an email to the Associated Press claiming that "images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan — and around the world — to inflame public opinion and incite violence."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs joined Petraeus in condemning plans to set fire to the book that almost 1/4 of the world believes to be holy.  Clinton called it "disgraceful" and Gibbs went even further, noting that any kind of "activity that puts our troops in harm's way would be a concern to this administration."

Of course, burning the Quran is legal, as it should be.  Burning The Bible must be legal. Same goes for burning the flag, burning photos of Barack Obama, burning copies of the Constitution, burning all Jethro Tull albums. These are important freedoms, and they must be protected.

The great irony is that burning sacred texts is not anti-American; it's wholly American.

The freedom to symbolically destroy another symbol is, in part, what makes America itself a symbol worth attacking.

In reality, there is no actual danger in burning pages of a book.  But, as General Petraeus notes, it is the image of Americans burning Qurans that concerns him.  The danger, then, lies in the semiotic realm.  

In all religions, fire carries with it a purgative and a punitive signification.  For Rev. Jones, watching the Quran burn in the flames of denunciation is in concert, symbolically, with his claim that Islam is of the Devil.  

Americans are, again, misguided if they obsess about this proposed burning on legal or moral grounds. That's not where the real meaning is made.  True meaning, real consequences take place in the semiotic, the symbolic, the cultural realm, and it is in that realm where discussions about the wisdom of such actions need to take place.

My prediction is that this is a stunt and that the Rev. Jones will bow to the pressure of other ministers, the president, the military, and even local law enforcement (who denied his application for a permit for an open burn) and call things off.  

Because, once you've earned it, it is very, very hard to shake the universal symbol of jackass.


  1. Dean, within an Islamic frame of reference, this act is indeed in the realm of significatio, but it is also very real. The very physical act of hurting a physical Qu'ran is horrific to a Muslim. The act being perpetrated by an American mini...ster moves this into the semiotic realm with evident connections to American imperialism and the Christian crusades. But the physical act, for a Muslim, the burning itself is horrific. Remember that for Muslims around the world, even the text of the Qu'ran is not to be translated. And while it is not unusual to see Bibles placed on the ground, that act would be considered disrespectful if done to the Qu'ran.

  2. Excellent post. Very welcome to see bits of humor woven responsibly into this topic. My favorite segment of that post is about America burning symbols almost as a matter of definition.

  3. I never expected the "burning" to take place, rather I think the stunt was all about making Terry Jones a household namebrand. He's succeeded. I can say that in Jordan, [where I'm living this year] Jones was commented on in the Jordanian press, but people were so busy hosting their families during EID celebrations that few took time off to revile the ridiculous.

  4. That is just terrible i am a muslim just think if i was burnig the bible. Burning the Quran is like buning my life Terry Jones IS THE WORST