With all the fuss about people burning the Koran, or threatening to, there's now a disturbing development in the UK. Six men have been charged under hate speech laws after apparently burning copies of the Koran and distributing a video of their action. The charges should be dropped, and the police should stop grandstanding.
That said, I am not a big fan of burning holy books, effigies, religious and other symbols, or national flags. Burning books, in particular, is (usually) a stupid thing to do. It’s stupid because the message is unclear and can easily, and possibly correctly, be read as too extreme. If I burn a Bible, my action is wide open to the message: "I hate this book and all it stands for." Well, what does it stand for? That, in turn, is wide open to the interpretation: "I hate, among other things, actual Christians." That’s never a message that I’d be encouraging or supporting. Similarly, the message from burning a Koran may quite reasonably be interpreted as including: "I hate actual Muslims."
Again, burning flags can convey a message that goes far beyond, say, opposition to a nation's foreign policy or human rights abuses to include hatred of that nation's people. Usually, there's a more focused and rational message that could be conveyed in some other way.
At the same time, all of these actions should be legal. There will be occasions when actions taken in the name of a country or a religion or ideology are so extreme that an extreme expression of anger is appropriate and the message of repudiation is clear enough. That should be legal, and I don't see how the law can draw a line here, deciding that burning your enemy's flag, holy book, or whatever, should be legal in some circumstances but not others. Those more subtle judgments are best left to individuals to make for themselves and to social debate to constrain.
Besides, what if someone really does wish to express hatred for a group of people? I'm not sure that that in itself should be a crime. There are circumstances where it may create an immediate danger of violence, but there are many other circumstances where the danger is not immediate and we should rely on laws against the violence itself. Different jurisdictions might reasonably draw the line in different places, but they should all lean in the direction of preserving as much room for free speech as possible.
I'd still like to see people be clearer and more discerning about what messages they send. I support PZ Myers over the the notorious "cracker" incident a couple of years back, because the circumstances justified a strong statement - someone was actually receiving death threats from religious fanatics because he took a consecrated wafer from a Catholic church service, rather than eating it. It was quite appropriate for an individual with PZ's public profile to respond with a symbolic statement totally repudiating the idea that consecrated wafers, or anything else, possess inherent sanctity. There was a context for his symbolic statement. But if someone outside of that context randomly crucified a consecrated wafer to express hatred of all it stands for, whatever that is, I’d make the same point as I do about burning the Koran: it’s a stupid way to express whatever it is you want to express – though again it should not be illegal.
There are many different contexts, of course: political contexts, artistic contexts, and so on. I’d have something more complicated to say in any case where the context demanded it. Consider a work of art such as a painting or an artistically composed photograph. This may well, because of additional content, or features of its aesthetic composition, or simply because of the context in which it is displayed, resist a simple interpretation and demand more thoughtful consideration from its audience. This is another area where the law struggles to draw a line. You can't adjudicate between acceptable and unacceptable forms of artistic expression, where meaning is up for grabs, and I don't think the law should even try - at least not with the sorts of cases discussed in this post.
It can get complicated. But just going around burning the Koran (or the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita, or whatever it might be) to express your hatred of whatever it is you think it stands for is almost always a lousy idea.
But then again -forgive me for labouring the point - it's not a matter for the police.