A reader writes:
As chair of a religious studies department, I can speak with a little authority on this topic. I think Hertzberg's rather romantic statement - like Frances Widdowson's more cynical statement on Canada's national broadcaster this weekend (she called the Qur'an a book just like any other book) - fails to recognize the uniqueness of the Qur'an, theologically speaking. It is scripture par excellence - the literal word of God (not necessarily subject exclusively to literal interpretation). And as such, each and every manifestation of it is itself sacred. No one is free to treat as cavalierly as most Christians could treat the Bible if they wished. Nobody was ever offended by the fact that the Bible I used for university courses is dog-eared and dirty, but my many Muslim students treated them with a fair degree of care.
So to burn the Qur'an is to cut deep.
Reaction to the idea could be construed as the insecurity of subaltern and not-so-subaltern Muslims, but it's much more, and I don't think it entails a profound fear of the destruction of Islam by the Great Shaitan. It's as great an offense as can be imagined. Failure to understand this reveals a basic difference in religiosities.
I suspect Terry Jones planned to burn a stack of Penguin "Korans," ie. translations, which theologically speaking are not Qur'ans at all. The special status of the Qur'an means that it cannot even be translated and retain the same ontological status. I can't say for sure, but while protests in the Islamic world have entailed the burning of effigies of American presidents as well as the flags of the US and Israel, I doubt you'd find any protests where Muslims burned Bibles or Torahs. They have a passionate understanding of what burning things means, and burning scripture, even corrupted ones for Christians and Jews, is verboten.