Banning and Burning

ALA Quran read out

I have never been prouder to be a part of this profession than I was on September 11 this year, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Barbara Jones, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, at the entrance to the American Library Association’s headquarters here in Chicago, making a simple statement of opposition to book burning. At our sides were Gerald Hankerson of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Kiran Ansari of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.

The 9/11 commemoration started taking shape earlier that week as a protest against the threatened burning of the Qur’an in Florida and ended up as a statement to the world that librarians value reading, learning, and tolerance over book burning, fear, and ignorance.

Following a moment of silence for those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington nine years ago, Jones made a statement to about 50 people who showed up, including ALA staff, media representatives, and a number of passers-by.

“Recently a small group has made international headlines by announcing that they planned to burn the Qur’an as a means to demonize Islam,” Jones said. “Using the threat of the destruction of books to wage a war on ideas that some may disagree with is offensive to the American Library Association, which embraces the diversity of our nation as one of our greatest strengths.”

“Book burning is the most insidious form of censorship, and such an action or threat should not be taken lightly,” Jones said. “Today it might be the Qur’an; tomorrow it might be the Bible. Free people read freely.” Quoting the Constitution, Jones added, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, as we have here today.”

The four of us then read verses from the Qur’an. It was a fitting prelude to Banned Books Week, September 25 through October 2, and the event drew attention to libraries as guardians of our freedom to read from nearly every major media outlet in Chicago.

But, of course, our stand against censorship and book burning cannot stop the fanatics. Even though the Florida group called off its planned burning, mosques nationwide braced for the worst, and copies of the Qur’an that had been burned and/or shot were discovered on 9/11 in mosques in Tennessee and Michigan.

For every would-be book burner, there are thousands of readers in this country who will speak out for our freedom to read whatever we choose. The outpouring of support for the counteraction ALA took on our front steps on September 11 was heartwarming and came from a disparate group of people and media who embraced libraries’ message of goodwill and education. The price of liberty remains eternal vigilance.

Watch the ALA event on video at americanlibrariesmagazine.org.

American Libraries magazine, October 1, 2010.

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