Heinrich Heine’s famous observation about book burning—that where books are burned, people also will be—was actually first made about the torching of the Quran. The Spanish Inquisition used to delight in putting heretical works “on trial,” and zealously convicted the Muslim holy book before feeding it to the flames in what is one of Christianity’s oldest traditions. (After all, it extends to the burning of unauthorized translations of the Holy Bible, too.) Heine’s 1821 play Almansor contains a character who observes that humans will next be burned, and the later incineration of Heine’s own writings by the Nazis, with its prefiguration of the Holocaust, has made the quotation an imperishable one.
The connection, however, is not always so neat. The moronic pastor who burned the Quran after a mock trial would probably refrain from setting fire to human beings. While in Afghanistan, where Islam already makes huge numbers of books unavailable and The Satanic Verses and the Danish flag must be in short supply, the news of book burning somewhere else is enough in itself to cause the random incineration of people.
How dispiriting to see, once again, the footage of theocratic rage in Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif. The same old dreary formula: self-righteous frenzy married to a neurotic need to take offense; the easy resort to indiscriminate violence and cruelty; the promulgation of makeshift fatwas by mullahs on the make; those writhing mustaches framing crude slogans of piety and hatred, and yelling for death as if on first-name terms with the Almighty. The spilling of blood and the spoliation of property—all for nothing, and ostensibly “provoked” by the corny, brainless antics of a devout American nonentity, notice of whose mere existence is beneath the dignity of any thinking person.