Testing the liberal principle of unity in difference

What’s wrong with burning the Koran? It’s only a book. What’s wrong with what Maurice Williamson said about getting stoned and adultery and Christians and Muslims? It was only a joke. Actually, it’s not so simple.

One argument against burning the Koran is fear. United States President Barack Obama’s fear was that Pastor Terry Jones’s stunt to burn the Koran on the ninth anniversary of Muslim anarchists’ September 11 attacks would boost Taleban and Al Qaeda recruitment and put Americans more at risk.

Fear constricts the human spirit. Fear is not an argument against burning the Koran. When the United States mixed fear with anger after the 2001 attacks, it lashed out at Iraq and Afghanistan and lost stature, friends and money.

A second argument against burning the Koran is that it is a book and to burn a book is to burn the human spirit. Words liberated humans from ignorance. Over the past half-millennium books have drawn us towards a liberal society which values its members — towards the light and away from darkness, even though via many dark places on the way because books are human and there is good and bad in humans.

Books are words. Winston Churchill said of the Nazis that “they are afraid of words”. All tyrants are.

Even a liberated society needs a steely liberal nerve to accept the speaking of words aimed at subverting or destroying the liberal order. Some democracies banned communist parties in the 1950s. Burning the Koran is a crude way to dispute some of its precepts but it is “free speech”.

A hating sliver of Islam finds words in the Koran on which to preach hatred of liberal societies and their peoples as “infidels” and to urge and plot the killing of women and children (in not-too-distant European history the Bible was similarly misused). Jihad, misused, is a deeply obscene word.

But burning the Koran won’t stop vicious mullahs and the young anarchists they dupe and damage. It might even give them a pretext to burn liberal books. It undermines the liberal cause. Words matter. They connect.

A third argument against burning the Koran is that it is more than a book and words. It is a symbol and symbols matter. Moreover, it is a religious symbol and religion is one way of making sense of an otherwise senseless existence and world. For Muslims it has a mystical status.

Symbols are part of identity. To a believing Christian burning the Bible would be an atrocity, an attack. To a believing Muslim of all sorts, from liberal to anarchist, burning the Koran would be an atrocity, an attack.

Burning a flag is a favoured attack by protesters because it symbolises the nation and its governors.

New Zealand has many symbols, among them the monarchy, revered by our Prime Minister, the kiwi, the silver fern, the Southern Cross, the tiki — and the Treaty of Waitangi. They symbolise the nation and the nation is part of each individual’s identity.

The Treaty is both words and a symbol. It is the document that opened a legal path to absorption into the British Empire and so founded our fused nation. In the past 40 years it has re-established Maori culture and worldview as a separate, parallel and equal culture and worldview alongside those inherited from the British.

It tells us that we are united and different and it symbolises that.

The original treaty document is rat-eaten — by allowing that, the colonial government “burnt” the words and the symbol. But the words and the symbol have revived to become a vibrant part of our society, used by “haters and wreckers”, Helen Clark’s famous phrase, and by nation-builders and the rebuilders of iwi and hapu.

Since 2003 the Treaty has been becoming symbolic of something broader and contentious: the rights of the indigenous people. A new set of words is overtaking the hasty drafting of 1840.

John Key implicitly acknowledged this shift when he met the Maori party demand to recognise the United Nations indigenous rights declaration. Last week he implicitly acknowledged it again with the bill to repeal the 2004 law which blocked iwi and hapu from seeking title to the foreshore and seabed as the Appeal Court said they might, in a decision that was based on the common law, not the Treaty.

Key faces another indigenous rights test when the Land and Water Forum reports next week: how far to import into resources law the Maori worldview on water, which is deeply different from the ex-British worldview. Another will come later this year, if Justice Joe Williams at last delivers his Waitangi Tribunal report on the claim for Maori protection and control of flora and fauna and related knowledge and practice. The claim has far-reaching implications for social cohesion and liberal principles.

That’s Key’s challenge: the liberal society must make unity out of difference. A Koran (or Bible) burner wants unity without difference, the mark of tyranny. Our unity in difference has held through the long Treaty trek. Will it hold as we head beyond the Treaty? Words are the key.