There's no doubt that the publicity-seeking Florida minister who burned a Quran to demonstrate his hatred of Muslims committed a pointlessly provocative and reprehensible act. But the reaction of Afghan rioters who killed at least innocent 20 people in retaliation for what they saw as an intolerable insult to Islam is even more indefensible. And while there are plenty of Americans willing to speak out against anti-Muslim intolerance, where are the Afghan leaders willing to condemn the violence committed by their fellow Muslims?
There's been more than enough ignorance and opportunism on both sides. Terry Jones, the pastor whose inflammatory gesture precipitated the riots, threatened to burn a Quran last year when protesters gathered in New York to oppose construction of an Islamic cultural center near the site of the 9/11 attacks. Mr. Jones backed off that plan temporarily after Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, warned it could put American lives there at risk. But for whatever reason, two weeks ago Mr. Jones went ahead and made good on his threat, despite knowing full well the likely consequences.
To their credit, the national news media withheld the lavish coverage it had previously provided the minister's obvious play for attention. As a result, Mr. Jones' reckless provocation initially went largely unnoticed in the Muslim world. But then for some reason known only to himself, Afghan President Hamid Karzai chose to resurrect the issue in a speech on Thursday, in which he sharply criticized U.S. forces for accidentally killing innocent civilians and called for Mr. Jones' arrest for the "crime" of insulting Islam.
Having lived in the U.S., Mr. Karzai knows perfectly well that U.S. law doesn't permit police to arrest people simply for exercising their right of free speech — however repugnant such speech may be. He also had to know that publicizing Mr. Jones' lunacy during a televised address might very well stoke extremist elements in his own country to commit acts of violence and cause the loss of innocent lives. But whatever twisted political calculation led him take such a risk, Mr. Karzai's criticism of his American partners and his calls for Mr. Jones' arrest have only grown more strident since the rioting began on Friday.
One almost gets the impression the Afghan leader is deliberately fomenting unrest among his people, perhaps in a desperate attempt to deflect criticism from the corruption and incompetence of the government he leads. He has always been a shaky ally whose integrity was doubtful at best.
But Mr. Karzai's is not the only voice in Afghanistan. Where are the other leaders of that country who have the moral authority to condemn the violence and the courage to speak out against bigotry and intolerance?
Mr. Jones acted recklessly and without regard to the danger others might find themselves in as a result of his shameless self-promotion and puffery. He is a vain, selfish man, the exact opposite of what a true spiritual leader should be. Perhaps that is why he has never been able to attract a flock of followers and relies instead on the anonymous audiences provided by the television news cameras to get his twisted message across.
Yet for all his failings, Mr. Jones did not commit a single act of violence or cause any person physical harm. It was the mullahs in Afghanistan, who whipped their congregations into a frenzy, and the rioters themselves who are to blame for the 20 deaths so far around the country, including seven at a United Nations compound, and injuries to dozens more.
Given instant communications and the 24/7 news cycle, there's no way that America, a country of 310 million people, can ever prevent every unbalanced individual from saying or doing something stupid or offensive. We must resist any effort to limit speech on the grounds it may, somewhere in the world, displease some people who do not share our religious or political views. The remedy for ignorant and opportunistic speech is more speech, not less. Americans, from the president on down, have condemned Mr. Jones' burning of the Quran. We're still waiting for Afghanistan's leaders to condemn the violence.