South Africa: Thou Shall Not Burn the Bible

A South African businessman and law student Mohammed Vawda planned to burn the Bible on September 11, 2010 in Johannersburg central business district. He claims that he was enraged by Florida pastor Terry Jones who wanted to burn the Koran. An Islamic organisation called Scholars of the Truth successfully asked the South African High Court to stop Mohammed from setting the Bible on fire arguing that the act was an insult to all religions.

A South Gauteng High Court Judge Sita Kolbe banned the event. His ruling has made the burning of any religious books in South Africa a crime. His ruling has receive mixed reactions.

Pierre de Vos, Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at the University of Cape Town, asks, “But when should the courts intervene to stop individuals from making fools of themselves?”:

But when should the courts intervene to stop individuals from making fools of themselves? On what basis should a judge decide that the actions of an individual will cause such harm to others that he or she should be stopped and should be interdicted from going through with his or her planned actions? Should a judge prevent someone from communicating his or her displeasure about a topical issue merely because this would be hurtful to a certain section of the population?

These questions came to mind when I read in the media that Judge Sita Kolbe in the South Gauteng High Court issued an interdict on Friday against a planned Bible burning by businessman and law student Mohammed Vawda. Vawda said his plan had nothing to do with Christianity; instead, he said he planned the burning because he was angry about Florida pastor Terry Jones’s plan to burn Korans over the weekend.

He argues that burning of the Bible or the Koran in itself constitute advocacy of hatred:

Would the burning of Bibles or the Koran constitute incitement to cause serious emotional distress? Well, it probably would cause serious emotional distress to devout Christians or Muslims if Bibles or Korans are burnt, but I am not so sure that one would be able to argue that the burning of these books would in itself constitute advocacy of hatred of people based on their religious beliefs. Such actions would be mean-spirited and would clearly be intended to hurt the seriously religious. But would one be able to interpret such a pathetic act as advocating hatred against Muslims or Christians?

Religious people must also learn tolerance and respect:

If we talk about a respect for difference and tolerance of religious diversity, does this not mean that religious believers must also show a tolerance and a respect for diversity towards those who wish to provoke them. I for one, will not rush out to buy a gun or gather my matches and necklaces to go out and kill Christians just because they rock up at my house to protest and to tell me that I am a pervert and that I will burn in hell.

In fact, I will blow them kisses and wave nicely – “one-two-three clutch pearls” – before smiling and getting ready for another wave – “one-two-three clutch pearls”(one can always learn something about how to behave in stressful situations by studying the Queen – of England).

But what is to be done when others are not as tolerant as oneself? Should a court take cognisance of that fact or should the court stand firm against all kinds of intolerance? For once I am not sure what I would have done in this case. Should a judge prohibit the burning of Korans and Bibles because of the obvious intention behind such a move merely to hurt (rather than to communicate a political or religious message)? Or should a judge allow such a burning on the basis that religious believers should grow up and should learn to embrace the values of democratic tolerance?

Pierre's post has attracted over 70 comments. Here are a few of them:

Michael Bishop says:

I also think you’re wrong to say that the Bible burning is apolitical. I agree that it is immature, but it does send a political message: “I am upset about this Pastor’s proposed action and i will show that by doing to him what he is doing to me.” We may think it’s silly, but we can’t say it has no political content. And that is an important point. There are very few examples of speech that is offensive and apolitical. As soon as we start banning speech that offends people, we prevent some political speech. We permit that for hate speech and incitement to violence (even though that too is political) because of the immense harm it can cause. But merely offensive speech is not that harmful. Being offended is part of the price you pay to live in a democracy.

The irony, of course, is that by bringing the case to ban the bible-burning, Mr Omar gave this guy way more publicity than he would otherwise have received. That is almost always true of these attempts to ban speech.

Last, i’d like to address Alistair’s point (in the previous post) that maybe book burning is Different. Obviously book burning has a history of being used for evil and i for one think it is a truly retarded idea (unless you need to start a fire). But books (Mein Kampf), radio broadcasts, (Rwanda), posters (Germany), TV (USA) all have a history of being used for nefarious ends. You can’t ban the medium (and book burning is a medium of expression) because it has in the past been used for evil. I think what we might ban is state-sponsored book burning (which i think is what the Berlin sign warns us about), because that is a denial of freedom of expression for the populace and undermines the state’s duty to promote and fulfil the right to freedom of expression. But private book burning is – although stupid and wasteful – legitimate.

Shannon says that there is no fundamental right not to be offended:

It’s hard for me to grasp the nuances of the South African constitutional approach to hate speech as I am American, and we have no such laws. Nonetheless, my feeling is this:

There is no fundamental right not to be offended.

You don’t have a right not to get your feelings hurt. A person has the right to be a jackass, and it’s then incumbent upon the rest of us to use *our* freedom of speech to declare from the rooftops that he is, in fact, a jackass. And you fight it out in the marketplace of ideas.

As Justice Brandeis wrote in a concurring decision in 1927’s Whitney v. California, “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears,” and later in the decision, “the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.” The solution to free speech is more free speech, not silencing.

What would have happened if South African courts had jurisdiction over Iraq?:

If only our courts had jurisdiction over Iraq. Perhaps they would grant an interdict restraining Shia’s from not only burning Holy Quarans, but also from burning the entire Sunni Mosques in which multiple Quarans are housed, together with the Sunni worshippers ripped limb-from-limb by their truck bombs.

The action of the moron Pastor Jones in Fkorida seems a little trivial by contrast.

Spuy, a born-again Christian, considers the Bible to be just another book:

Personally as a born again christian – I dont seriously hold the Bible high as a “book”. In fact, in my Sotho culture some people do absurd things as to put the bible under their pillow to “protect them from evil spirits” they claim. If you ask me: they may as well put Long Walk To Freedom book under their pillow with the hope of getting a tender or something.

Point is the Bible is just another book which becomes “holy” or “living” as soon as one conducts his life according to its prescripts, other than that it remains a book which anybody has a right to burn as far as I am concerned. In this case though I ’submit’ that the intention revenge..i.e Only the harmed can revenge by intending to harm back….

Laurence Caromba, a student of politics at the University of Pretoria, wants to be able to burn the Koran or the Bible. He explains his reasons:

First, burning the Bible or the Koran is a legitimate form of free speech. The message it conveys is not exactly subtle, in the same way that burning the American flag is not subtle. Nevertheless, it gets the point across: Islam/Christianity/America is bad. Regardless of whether this is true or false, these are beliefs that are sincerely held. The people who hold these beliefs have a right to articulate their views in public, and burning the symbols of institutions to which they are opposed is valid (if distasteful) way of doing that.

Second, church-state separation implies that the state is supposed to adopt a neutral stance towards religion. It should not favour one religion over another, and it should not favour religion in general over secularism. But if the state makes it illegal to burn religious books, this necessarily forces it into the position of having to adjudicate theological disputes over what qualifies as “religious” book in the first place. Will it be illegal to burn the Book of Mormon? What about L Ron. Hubbard’s Dianetics? What about printouts of the Heaven’s Gate online book? Even if these cases can be hand-waved aside, there’s still the broader problem that the state is favouring religion over secularism. What will the response be to atheists who want to prevent people from burning The God Delusion, or communists who want to stop the burning of Das Kapital?

Finally, there is an argument that burning the Bible or the Koran is an example of hate speech. However, hate speech is an incitement to commit violence, and it’s not self-evident that the burning a religious tract does this. Certainly, burning the Bible is not clear-cut case of incitement in the same way as, for example, RTLM radio telling people in Rwanda to go out and kill Tutsis, or the authors of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion writing that Jews use the blood of innocent children to make their cookies. Sure, I can certainly imagine scenarios where burning the Bible or the Koran is hate speech. If someone stands up in front of an angry mob and gives a speech about how Muslims are evil and then, as a final flourish, sets fire to a Koran, I have no problem with treating this as hate speech and banning it.

Common Dialogue says that religious people are nature's twisted sense of humour. He thinks that religion should be banned:

I have said before, religion should be banned. But then again, maybe religious people were created to entertain us. They are nature’s twisted sense of humour.

Mary supports the idea that religion should be banned. She says, “Let them burn each others ‘holy’ books until they are all gone.”:

I agree that religion should be banned. Let them burn each others ‘holy’ books until they are all gone. As long as we dont get a repeat of 2001 when Muslims dynamited the 2000 year old Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and destroyed almost everything in the National Museum in Kabul that stemmed from the country’s Buddhist days because the Koran said it was non-Islamic. For this act alone, their book should be burned.

Galila thinks that the issue of burning religious books is much bigger than just religion:

religion shouldn’t be banned. i dont think burning the holy books will help either. this is much bigger than just religon. i know what’s right and i guess thats all that counts. as for others with the same thoughts as you well good luck.

1 comment

  • Go ahead – burn the bibles …… But before you throw the match please YouTube ‘ fallujah shake and bake ‘ that’s how you burn something nice and crispy …… OORAAAH !!! Why is it that South Africa – a country with 35 million Christians even give a shit about some Indian lawyer wannabe … The only time a big law firm would hire an INSURGENT like that is because they can’t find any proper legal talent … I had a look at his grades at University , not even a small firm would hire him , maybe Al Qaeda will hire him…. It’s amazing they even let the retard continue studying with such low grades … Maybe he should just do what all other Indians do… Open up a cafe or work as a taxi driver or sell bed mattresses … Or make friends with Jacob Zuma and land an airplane at Waterkloof

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