We've been here before and, no doubt, we'll be here soon enough again. Twenty-one years ago the Muslims of Bradford were burning copies of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, as well as effigies of the author himself. Today we have a small church in the US, the ironically named Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, planning to burn a couple of hundred copies of the Koran on Saturday to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
The church's grand demonstration of "up yours, Muslims" has aroused condemnation from all over the US. Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, has called it – somewhat stiltedly – "disrespectful and disgraceful". The Attorney General, Eric Holder, has described it as "idiotic and dangerous". The US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, has even been drawn into the fray, pronouncing that "it is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems".
And so say all of us. Pastor Terry Jones has planned this event as a clear act of provocation. There is nothing in Christ's teaching to suggest that deliberately upsetting others has anything to do with Christianity. It certainly doesn't conform to "turning the other cheek". Nor does it bear any relationship to the circumstances, or the actions, of any Muslims in Gainesville.
But condemning it so wholeheartedly misses the point – or rather, actually, provides the point. How else does the pastor of a congregation of some 50 people and the author of a book, Islam is the Devil, which has made no waves at all, bring attention to himself, let alone arouse the magisterial comments of the commander of troops in Afghanistan?
It's the same with the usual dismissal of terrorist outrages as "mindless acts of violence". That is precisely what they are not. They are geared to drawing public attention to a group or a cause, the more attention, the better. The internet and the growth of social networking sites such as Twitter has made the problem infinitely worse. Even the BBC ends its report on its site with the words, in big, bold type: "What do you think of the planned action? Are you in Gainesville? What is the local reaction to the move? Send us your comments." So dies original reporting in the ready (and cheap) reach for audience participation.
Not that it needs the BBC to encourage people to pile in with their views. You can barely stop them, just as you could barely stop the Han Chinese exploding on to the internet with their condemnation of the Tibetan rioters two years ago. This is an issue, propound the commentators, touching the raw nerve of US public opinion aroused by the proposals to build a mosque near the site of the Twin Towers.
These are real issues, open to contrary views. The burning of the Koran is something else, similar to going up and knocking the yarmulke off the head of an Orthodox Jew or the turban off a Sikh, an act designed to insult and inviting retribution. In Britain, that might be enough to justify a prosecution for incitement to violence. With a sizeable Muslim population in our midst and extensive interests abroad, there is a palpable fear that any perceived insult to Islam will bring a global and violent reaction. In America, in contrast, the right of free speech has always been regarded as enshrined in the constitution and therefore virtually untouchable.
The trouble with legislation, as we know from efforts to include religion in its purview, is that the law is a cumbersome and ultimately ineffective way of separating incendiary intent from the age-old desire to provoke. Provocation has always been a central part of the West's culture. Fear of the political response, as with the Danish cartoons, cannot be allowed to suppress the dynamic of open debate, however base the individual motivations behind the act may be.
The Gainesville Center has the right to seek its Dove World Outreach in its own way, just as the Bradford Muslims have a right to burn novels if they want. The proper response of the authorities is to say: "In our society we don't intervene in individual actions such as this while, as a gesture, it is too childish to be worth commenting on."
Madrid should heed the lessons of the IRA
The propulsion to publicity was also behind Basque separatist movement ETA's offer of a ceasefire last week – or at least the manner of it, with a video of three hooded members speaking to the video camera for distribution through the media. You can understand the Spanish government's irritated response, dismissing the offer as valueless and insisting it would only talk to the group if it agreed to lay down its arms beforehand.
They're the same conditions that Mrs Thatcher initially insisted on with the IRA. And one can't help feeling that Madrid is wrong to do so with ETA now. True it – and the Spanish public at large – feel particularly aggrieved that it was ETA which unilaterally broke the last ceasefire. It also feels that, after a succession of high- profile captures of the group's leaders over the past year, it has the organisation on the run.
That may be so. But it is precisely the point, from the experience of Northern Ireland, at which you should use the carrot rather than the stick. ETA may lack the the IRA's political leadership and it may be flaky. But there is little point in forcing it into a corner where it has to bite back to prove its continuing validity. If, as one suspects, the mood of the local people is one of exhaustion with armed struggle, and if the economic downturn is turning minds to commercial growth rather than armed victory, then take advantage of that to draw as many as possible into the political process. Northern Ireland shows that it can be done, even if it is also proving that violence is never totally stamped out when passions run deep, the young are unemployed and the extremists fear their growing irrelevance.
For further reading
'From Fatwa to Jihad: the Rushdie Affair and its Legacy', by Kenan Malik (Atlantic, 2009)