Virtual Book Burning and Its Consequences

Dove World Outreach pastor Terry Jones’ threatened Qur’an burning has received a disproportionate amount of media attention, including hand-wringing about whether there should be media attention given to small-time pastors who use such tactics precisely to gain such media attention. And yet the lightning speed at which the threat, the negotiations, and the withdrawal of the threat occurred suggests another level of complexity to the iconography of the book which may be new.

There is, in fact, renewed interest in the idea of the religious book. In the past three years, Syracuse University’s James Watts has hosted a series of conferences focused on the iconography of the book in religious traditions: how the physical object of the book becomes a symbol beyond its contents, and becomes meaningful in religious rituals, religious paintings, and everyday religious lives. And scholars have joined Claremont’s Vincent Wimbush in starting the Institute for Signifying Scriptures (ISS), which looks at the material worlds of the Bible and other sacred texts, and how such texts take shape in the cultural and artistic lives of their readers.

No Religion is Innocent in this Story

Books have always been symbolically powerful enough that their destruction touches us in ways that other forms of destruction do not. We hear perhaps more about the secular examples of book burning; the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang decreed that all books not belonging to his state be destroyed; the Roman Senate made a similar order about a book praising Brutus and Cassius after Caesar’s assassination; and Hitler and Stalin are among the many political leaders who have made the decree in the twentieth century.

But the historical examples of the burning of religious texts are also myriad. (And no religion is innocent in this story.) Many of them are examples of religious persecution. We know from the Book of Maccabees (1.1.56) that in the 2nd century BCE, Antiochus mandated that the Torah scrolls be torn in pieces and burnt in Jerusalem. (The Maccabean revolt took place several years later.) In the fourth century, the Emporer Diocletian ordered Christian books burned as a way of stepping up his persecution. And disturbingly closer to the present-day Floridian rhetoric, the Spanish Inquisition famously burned the Qur’an as part of their purifying activities.

Book burning can also be a way of forming canon within religious traditions. In the fourth century CE, Christian heretical books of Arius were burned after the Council of Nicaea determined the extent of the canonical books of the New Testament. In the eighth century, the third caliph of Islam, Uthman, was in charge of collecting the Qur’an and decreed that any Qur’anic texts with wording that did not conform to the collected verses of the Qur’an be burned. In the twentieth century, ultra-orthodox rabbis burned the revised prayer book written by conservative rabbi Modecai Kaplan.

Finally, book burning can be a kind of protest or other public declaration on the part of a religious minority. In the Book of Acts (19.19) for example, we learn that new Christians burned their magic scrolls that they had used before they converted as a way of declaring their new identity. In the twentieth century, Hindu extremists have burned books by Western scholars as a way of protesting Western academic analysis of Hindu symbols.

The Mouse that Roared?

So Pastor Jones is in excellent historical company. Despite his proudly-displayed ignorance of the contents of the Qur’an (an all-too-frequent trait of book burners), he intuitively knew that book burning could involve all three aspects of this complex symbol. It could be a politically purifying act on the part of the dominant institution, a way of clarifying religious canon, as well as an act of protest on the part of a religious minority. And in his rhetoric, Jones used all three stances involving the symbolism of the book. First, in a world where many doubt whether the United States is still a dominant power on the worldwide stage, Qur’an-burning would be an assertion of that American power. Second, in a world where different religious texts are read and discussed more broadly than ever before, Qur’an burning would be an unequivocal statement that Christian canon was the only canon that mattered. Third, in a world where right-wing extremists frequently ignore their majority status and claim that they are a persecuted minority, Jones eagerly employed the rhetoric of a persecuted Christian minority in the face of a supposedly threatening and potentially hegemonic Islam.

So the ancient and complex iconography of the book has worked well for Mr. Jones.

And yet there is also a new layer of complexity to this symbolism. Many might have already forgotten that this weekend’s Gainesville Qur’an burning actually never happened, but was only threatened (although Kansas pastor Fred Phelps did burn a Qur’an in its place). Perhaps the idea of book burning is so ensconced in both our political and our religious imaginations, that the mere imagining of it is enough to change the global political landscape. But others, in communities as small as Dove World Outreach, have burned books with very little fanfare. How could a simulacrum of an act, the mere suggestion of it, have such widespread effect?

Here is one possible answer. Because of the speed of the internet, the mere possibility of the book burning was enough to trigger global action, as if it had already happened and already had consequences. Thus, book burning is no longer conducted on a simple register of either oppression or protest, but rather a highly complex one that involves several elements. First, there was the suggestion of the book-burning act as a form of media manipulation and entrepreneurship. Second, there was the immediate response of demonstrations in Afghanistan, with NATO bases attacked and several demonstrators killed. Third, there was the immediate, near-simultaneous invocation of worldwide violence by Muslims as a potential consequence of the act. Fourth, there was the immediate, near-simultaneous response from religious and political leaders weighing in on the effects of the act in their corner of the world.

This is not to deny the fact that public threats have always been a powerful political tool. But such threats usually are taken seriously if they are made by major leaders with large arsenals. The Gainesville scenario is the religious and internet version of The Mouse that Roared, where a small nation hijacks the world stage by declaring war on the United States, and, through the US’ efforts to placate it, becomes a world power as a result.

I see the scrolls burning but the letters fly up…”

Indeed, the Gainesville event might be the final culmination of the age of hijackers, where a small group’s manipulation of a powerful vehicle has far-reaching disastrous effects. Only in this case, the vehicle is the Qur’an, not an airplane. And the manipulation need only be virtual. Never has book burning been so effective without even occurring. Symbolic actions on the internet and their consequences in the real world now occur almost simultaneously. And the threat of a symbolic gesture and an actual one become one and the same.

Let me go even one step further. One could even say that the suggestion of book burning is the only possible form of effective action today—far more effective than the book burning itself. In the twenty-first century it is virtually impossible (pun intended) to destroy books as a way of entirely eradicating a class of information, as Diocletian and many other emperors wanted to do. This is impossible to do because books are no longer physical objects but also electronic ones. It is also impossible to do because even electronic destruction may not be effective. At best, no matter how widespread a computer virus (a contemporary version of book burning), there is no guarantee that such destruction would be complete.

Jones’ intuition that the act of burning a book would attract more attention than other possible acts of Islamophobic protest was correct. Sacred (as well as secular) books have all too frequently emerged on the historical stage as material symbols of a targeted intellectual or spiritual tradition. And book burning is now a globally powerful symbol. What’s more, it’s now an act which need only be threatened for it to have serious consequences. And perhaps, in the twenty-first century, symbolic acts of all kinds have become fundamentally different; they need only be suggested or imagined in virtual reality for the consequences to appear in real time.

Jewish tradition has it that Rabbi Haninah Ben Teradion was burned at the stake with the Torah scroll underneath him for defying the Roman decree against teaching the Torah. As the scroll was burning, he said, “I see the scrolls burning but the letters fly up in the air.” Most interpreters over the centuries, both religious and secular, have taken this statement to mean that ideas are more powerful than the physical letters on a scroll. But now the letters literally fly up in the air, and exist there, with rather unsettling results for our political and religious lives on the ground.