“A woman who taught at Berkeley dropped in on me once and saw a book burning in the fireplace,” recalled Pauline Kael, in her skeptical film review of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” “She pointed at it in terror. I explained that it was a crummy ghost-written life of a movie star and that it was an act of sanitation to burn it rather then sending it out into the world which was already clogged with too many copies of it. But she said, ‘You shouldn’t burn books’ and began to cry.”
Some four decades later, and hysteria has risen again about books as holy objects. This time, however, the Berkeley brigade is concerned that, even if a Muslim detainee’s Koran wasn’t, after all, flushed down the toilet by American military prison guards (as Newsweek notoriously and erroneously reported), on occasion the Koran was, for instance, knocked from a pouch onto a bed, accidentally splashed with urine, placed by an interrogator on a TV – then removed from the TV after the detainee complained. That sort of thing.
Now in my opinion, the Koran should not be flushed down the toilet. I don’t even think tampons should be flushed down the toilet, as I always warn my tenants. If I have to send a plumber over to clear the pipes, and he finds a copy of the Koran down there, those tenants are going to be in big trouble.
I also generally agree with official U.S. policy that the holy books of other cultures should be treated with respect. Still, there’s a limit as to how much respect any mere object – even a book – should command. When religious fanatics break out into murderous riots at the mere thought that their special book has been (as they say) “mistreated,” I think that limit has been reached.
I disagree with my friends on the right who blamed such riots on mistaken reporting, and I disagree with those on the left who blame it on the American military. Responsibility for riots lies with the rioters. I’ll admit, by the way, that in this country the right has a worse record when it comes to mistreating books than the left – if you consider (as I do) banning them because of what they contain true mistreatment. For every p.c. idiot who wants to remove “Huckleberry Finn” from school libraries because of the n-word, there are several more reactionary idiots who think children shouldn’t have access to the “Harry Potter” series because it promotes witchcraft.
Even when they might have a point, these people manage to come across as self-righteous and clueless. This summer, for instance, a Pennsylvania school board voted to ban Adam Rapp’s young adult novel “The Buffalo Tree” from the high-school curriculum because of some sexually suggestive chapters set in a juvenile detention center. They might have gained more sympathy for their side, however, had they thought to ask why children’s section books are considered appropriate required reading for 11th-graders. By that age shouldn’t teenagers be expected to read something a little more challenging?
But back to the Koran. Why should one religion’s holy book be treated with more delicacy than any other’s? In the wake of the Koran-flushing story, a friend sent me Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward’s Wall Street Journal opinion piece, which argued that the Koran is more sacred to Muslims than the Bible is to Christians and Jews, then got annoyed when I remained unconvinced. But Woodward’s opinion piece was only that – an opinion. Plenty of knowledgeable people have different opinions.
An orthodox Jew I know, for instance, told me that the handwritten Torah (not a mass-produced copy, like the Korans of those detainees) is considered so sacred that people have died trying to prevent it from being desecrated. But there are no riots when it gets desecrated anyway. Christian religious scholars point out that the Koran is not really comparable to the Bible – it’s comparable to Jesus Christ, who is seen as the eternal Word of God. But Christians didn’t riot when artist Andres Serrano depicted a crucifix in urine several years ago.
Woodward’s commentary about the relative holiness of the Koran compared to the Torah or the Bible is beside the point anyway. Who cares what any given group of barbarians decides is worth rioting about? Muslim extremists also find it offensive when women drive, or appear in public without burkas, or when anyone tries to enter Saudi Arabia with Korans that differ from the hard-line Wahhabi version. (Pilgrims journeying to Mecca with non-Wahhabi-approved Korans see them confiscated and destroyed by Saudi authorities.)All this over the notion of books as objects. But what about the far more important function of books as purveyors of ideas? As it happens, around the same time as the Koran-flushing non-incident, an Italian judge ordered bestselling author and journalist Oriana Fallaci to stand trial for defaming Islam in her new book “The Force of Reason,” which was supposed to be available in English this fall but has been delayed until January. Perhaps that’s because Fallaci herself, who worries (not without cause) that Europe is in danger of becoming an anti-Western Islamic colony, has been delayed by wrongheaded Italian rules against defaming religion.
Fallaci is militantly against Islamic militants and is famous for her aggressive and tactless arguing style. Problematic passages from “The Force of Reason” include this: “Their goal is not to fill cemeteries. Not to destroy our skyscrapers…It is to destroy our ideas. Our feelings and our dreams. It is to subjugate the West once again.” And: “[Terrorists kill] to the glory of the Koran. In obedience to the verses.”
Fallaci’s opinions may very well be offensive to Islam, as well as unfair to nonviolent, moderate Muslims, but I don’t want to see only nonoffensive books published. And it would be nice, by the way, if the feminist establishment would take up the cause of a woman intellectual currently being harassed by the most misogynistic religion on earth.
As a commenter on one of the blogs discussing Fallaci’s situation asked, if an Italian woman can’t pitch a fit – in Italy! – what is the world coming to? The pessimistic answer, I suppose, would be: A place in which the forces of primitivism are winning battles against the force of reason. We can only hope they don’t win the war.
Catherine Seipp is a writer and visiting fellow with IWF. She also maintains a blog, “Cathy’s World.”