Terry JonesWhen Florida pastor Terry Jones threatened to set fire to copies of the Qu’ran back in September 2010, those of us whose job it is to defend free expression found ourselves in the odd position of standing up for the rights of a book burner.

It is not infrequent that we find ourselves defending the rights of the exact people who would deny them to others: it’s pretty much the defining stance of liberalism. But the symbolism of the bonfire of books, always in our mind’s eye surrounded by saluting Nazis, made this task somewhat more odious for some.

Writer’s group PEN International was the first to break the line, with president John Ralston Saul declaring: “There is only one religion of book burning. Whatever the book – a text from any religion, a novel, a philosophical treatise, a poem – those who cast it into the flames stand arm-in-arm with Goebbels on a square in Berlin worshipping at the altar of hatred.”

Ralston Saul went on to say: “PEN stands for unlimited freedom of expression. But we also…”

Actually, I think we can stop at that “But”. It is the “but” that always haunts free expression: no other human right is so qualified; no other right is so expected to prove its purpose at every point. We say that free expression is good for democracy, or good (ultimately) for societal cohesion: we rarely say it is quite simply good in itself.

And when people like Pastor Jones and his sidekick Pastor Wayne Sapp turn up, it’s easy to see why we hesitate so. In March, Sapp went ahead with a Koran burning, a little noted event, but one that eventually led to the murders of UN workers by a Kabul mob seeking revenge against the “west”, which Jones apparently represents.

But Jones and Sapp themselves have not killed anyone. Or even incited anyone to be killed. If anyone can claim the latter honour, it is the imams of Kabul, who sought to whip up once again the resentment, humiliation and paranoia that have been the Islamist mode ever since Ayatollah Khomeini attempted to distract a distraught Iranian population with his death sentence on a foreign fiction writer.

But ultimately, it is the perpetrators of murderous violence who must be blamed for murderous violence (in a civilian setting, that is). While rioters may well have held the Qu’ran dear, this is not a reason for killing. As philosophy writer Nigel Warburton pointed out on Index on Censorship’s Free Speech Blog: “no idea or object should be sacrosanct from criticism or ridicule, and we should be clear that we condemn violence far more than we condemn the expression of offensive views.”

Afghanistan’s President Karzai has sought the prosecution of Jones and Sapp, but, admirably, US authorities have not for a moment suggested this could be a possibility.

The Kabul slaughter was horrific. But it should only strengthen our resolve in defending free speech, both from and for book burners.

Should it be made a criminal offence in the UK to burn the Qu'ran? Vote in our poll below.