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Fahrenheit 451

Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen (wherever they burn books, in the end they will burn people too).” The words come from the poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), and they are to be found on a memorial plaque at Bebelplatz, off Unter den Linden in central Berlin, near the spot where, in 1933, nationalist and National Socialist students burned about twenty thousand books, including, incidentally, works by Heine himself, in what was termed an “Action against the Un-German Spirit”.

Heine’s words tend nowadays to be read as prophecy, but they were initially intended as a comment on historical fact of a few centuries past, with an eye on what the poet saw as a rising threat in his own time. The quotation is from the 1821 play Almansor and the words are the reaction of a Muslim character, Hassan, on hearing that the Christian forces who have captured Granada are burning the Quran in the marketplace.

Heine quite obviously deprecated this vandalism and the contempt it showed towards the great seven-century-long civilisation of Islamic Spain, but he was also thinking of the growing intolerance of the German “national spirit” in his own time, reawakened and casting around for enemies to purge after the defeat of Napoleon’s attempt to dominate Europe by force of arms. In 1834 he was to write:

Do not smile at my advice – the advice of a dreamer who warns you against Kantians, Fichteans, and philosophers of nature. Do not smile at the visionary who anticipates the same revolution in the realm of the visible as has taken place in the spiritual. Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder. German thunder is of true Germanic character; it is not very nimble, but rumbles along ponderously. Yet, it will come and when you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world's history, then you know that the German thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.

Book-burning has a long history in Europe (as indeed does people-burning). It seems originally to have been chiefly an assertion of power, carried out in public and often accompanied by considerable stateliness and pomp. And of course it tended to carry with it a warning: here your evil books are consigned to the pyre, but it could just as easily be you, and may well be yet. To simply ban a book, as in the Holy See’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum or the independent Irish state’s measures to safeguard its citizens’ spiritual health by stopping the import of dirty books (and others), is an administrative act. It has a specific purpose, and mechanisms to ensure its effectiveness, often quite inefficient mechanisms since there is always a world beyond one’s jurisdiction and borders can be porous. To ceremonially burn a book, at least when the act is carried out by a state or sovereign ecclesiastical power (the Inquisition was a largely independent actor, while Calvin’s Geneva was effectively a theocratic city-state) is a symbolic act of majesty.



The 1933 book-burning on Bebelplatz (then known as Opernplatz) was not a state action but one in which the state, newly in Hitler’s hands, strongly colluded. It can certainly be seen as a signal or message, and one thing it was saying was “We are the masters now.” The burning of books, or other symbolic goods, by actors other than the state is a more complex matter, a sign sometimes of anger or defiance or an act of provocation – which can be read as betokening a relative lack of real power ‑ as in the burning of American or Israeli flags by the Arab “street” or of Irish tricolours by Northern working class loyalists. And of course an identical act can have different significations depending on where it takes place: the burning of copies of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses can be interpreted in one way if it is happening in Tehran and another if in Bradford.

It is fairly safe to say, however, that whatever may be its precise meaning in a given context, or the accompanying level of generalised threat to the person, burning a book is an act that implies, or even enacts, censorship: here is your book, which you value; and here is what we think of it and would do with it, and not just with this copy but with all copies. It is therefore somewhat puzzling to find an article defending book-burning – or at any rate defending its perpetrators – on the website of an organisation whose raison d’être is to celebrate freedom of expression.

In a recent guest post on the website of Index, Jacob Mchangama takes the Danish government to task for its decision to prosecute a man who had burned a copy of the Quran. The decision can apparently be traced back to a 2015 statement from the Danish Criminal Law Council which advised that the burning of “holy books” should remain a punishable offence. Mchangama argues:

One of the reasons cited ... is the need to prevent religious extremists – at home and abroad – from instigating riots and violence as a result of having their religious feelings insulted. This is a deeply problematic argument in and of itself, but even more so in the context of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten having been the target of at least four foiled terrorist attacks since publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005, the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in 2015 and the killings of atheists and free thinkers in Bangladesh. A blasphemy ban indirectly legitimizes the Jihadist’s Veto, rather than confronting it.

Mchangama goes on to ask ‑ by way of an analogy some may find rather fanciful ‑ that since conservatives might well be offended by the burning of Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution or classical liberals by that of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, why are only religious books being protected (through the reactivation in the Danish case of a long dormant blasphemy law)? This reactivation he sees as “a dereliction of duty on the part of a liberal society which in no uncertain terms should make clear to religious fundamentalists that they cannot hope to have democracies impose their religious red lines on the rest of society through threats, intimidation and violence”.

This is certainly a strong argument: it is not generally a good idea to give in to threats of violence (though some have occasionally found it, in exceptional circumstances, prudent to do so). And freedom of expression is an important fundamental value in liberal societies (though it may not be an absolute one). Jacob Mchangama certainly puts forward a strong case on a theoretical level against the use of blasphemy laws to punish acts seen by certain interested (religious) parties as offensive or sacrilegious. What is ‑ curiously enough ‑ entirely absent from his post, however, is any account of the details of the case in which the Danish government has decided to act. What were the circumstances of the burning? Who carried it out? In what context? With what aim? To find answers to any of these questions we have to go elsewhere, to a report of the controversy in January in The New York Times.

The decision to charge the burner of the Quran, the Times reports, was made by a regional prosecutor in Viborg. The suspect, who was not identified by the authorities but who calls himself John Salvesen on Facebook, uploaded video footage of a Quran being burned in the back yard of his house. The video was posted in December 2015 to a Facebook group called “Yes to Freedom — No to Islam”. Above the video, shared 415 times, were the words: “Consider your neighbour, it stinks when it burns.” One commenter wrote: “If I had the Quran I’d also burn it, that’s the only thing it’s good for. Gives a bit of heat.” Elsewhere on the man’s Facebook page were messages attacking Islam, refugees and women.

The defendant’s lawyer, Rasmus Paludan, a libertarian with links to the Danish equivalent of the German far-right anti-Islam movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) argued that his client had burned the Quran in “self-defence”. “The Quran contains passages on how Muhammad’s followers must kill the infidel, ie the Danes,” he said. “Therefore, it’s an act of self-defence to burn a book that in such a way incites war and violence.” He added that his client “loves freedom of expression and loves Denmark”.

Mr Mchangama does not accuse the Danish government of just being soft on Islamism or being weak in the face of the threat of terrorism from that source.

It would be wrong ... to suggest that Denmark has succumbed to the will of Islamists in particular, rather than to a loss of faith in free speech in general. Last year Parliament adopted a bill prohibiting “religious teachings” that “expressly condone” certain punishable acts and allows the government to maintain a dynamic list of “hate preachers” barred from entering Denmark. These initiatives were the direct consequence of a documentary exposing radical imams in Danish mosques preaching that the punishment for adultery and apostasy is stoning. And the current government has also presented a bill that would criminalize the mere sharing of “terrorist propaganda” online and allow the police to block access to websites containing criminal material such as terrorist propaganda or racist content. These developments signal a marked shift in the Danish approach to free speech.

What is being defended here, it would seem, is an absolutist conception of free speech, which is to be protected in all circumstances. Quite obviously this is not a proposal that commands uniform assent across society: most people wish to protect the vulnerable, and in particular children, from pornography; they wish to outlaw pornography involving children, or involving adults who may not be acting with full consent; some people wish to outlaw Holocaust denial; some people wish to limit the publication of racist or sexist propositions that they believe constitute “hate speech”; others to rein in provocative acts or speeches which may be likely to lead to violence (to “cause a breach of the peace” in legalspeak); others argue that there should be “no free speech for fascists” and are quite happy to arrogate to themselves the privilege of defining who the fascists are.

What may be involved in the Danish case (we don’t fully know as it has yet to come to trial) is an act of insult or provocation aimed at a minority ethnic/religious community, designed to hurt or to provoke. When I lived in France some decades ago I was surprised to be able to find openly on display in the newsagents journals of the extreme right like Rivarol and Minute, which I remember regularly featuring vulgar caricatures of Jews and Arabs. I couldn’t quite imagine them appearing in either Ireland or the United Kingdom (though Private Eye did at the time have a strain of juvenile antisemitism targeting Jewish members of the establishment). Both French magazines still exist and both support the far right politically, with Minute perhaps attempting to exude a whiff of transgressiveness in describing itself on its website as a “politically incorrect weekly”.

Defenders of absolute free speech will claim that the offensiveness of Minute or Rivarol (or of Charlie Hebdo for that matter, whose cartoons are frequently provocative, racist and homophobic) is a price we must be prepared to pay for a free society. They may well be right, but it would seem that at the current political moment there are voices arguing on every side of this question.

9/4/2017