Insulting values held dear by millions of people appears to be a new favorite pastime of certain fringe groups in Europe. A string of Quran burning incidents in Sweden and Denmark naturally infuriated Muslims around the world. Encouraged by laws of freedom of expression, several activists are now planning the public burning of the Torah in Sweden.
Both Scandinavian countries have laws granting freedom of expression that allow far-right groups or other radicals to commit the provocative action. Thus, the incidents and outcry over it in the Muslim world simply boil down to the ageless debate on limits of freedom – if there are any.
To achieve diversity and ensure a sustainable multicultural society, as European countries are so proud of, respecting the values of individuals regardless of their background is essential. Boundaries of freedom can be an open-ended matter but common agreement is that having freedom of expression does not mean that you are free to commit acts harmful to others. Inciting hatred is one such harmful act. Burning a holy book like the Quran in public is nothing but a display of hatred and incitement of hatred among Muslims.
Speaking of laws on freedoms, Sweden, at least, has laws and regulations in place to protect religious minorities. They grant freedom of religion and respect one’s faith in a secular country. This is where the lines of freedom are blurred.
Is it possible to grant someone the right to burn a holy book while another law protects the faith based on the same book? As a matter of fact, the Swedish Constitution says everyone shall be guaranteed freedom to practice one’s religion while another article says, “The public institutions shall combat discrimination of persons on grounds of gender, color, national or ethnic origin, linguistic or religious affiliation, functional disability, sexual orientation, age or other circumstance affecting the individual.” Insulting one’s religious values clearly falls into the definition of discrimination, which, in this context, can be better worded as intolerance.
Therefore, in the case of Sweden, the country must review its contradicting laws and stop pretending that insulting a religion is a freedom of expression instead of a lack of tolerance for a faith.
Swedish and Danish officials were quick to criticize the burnings, but the desecration of holy books, in the words of Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström, is viewed as an offensive and disrespectful act at most. By censuring the burnings, they dodged the aforementioned debate on the limits of freedom.
In the era of rising Islamophobia, desecrating the Quran is an easy way for anti-Muslim groups to irritate the faithful or those who respect people's rights, while comfortably shielding themselves with laws. They know they will not be vilified by the West much and will even be regarded as heroes fighting for freedom of expression. A far-right activist like Rasmus Paludan, who sparked this latest craze of Quran burning, is a reasonable man in this context. Yes, this is the same Danish-Swedish politician who was found guilty of racist acts in at least three separate cases by Danish courts. The aim of Paludan and his ilk is to provoke Muslims to commit acts of violence against them and their supporters and ultimately, succeed in portraying Muslims as a “savage bunch incompatible with their Western values such as freedom of expression.”
Perhaps inadvertently, however, these acts test the very existence of laws for freedom. This prized freedom of desecration of holy scriptures is perfectly appropriate if you live in a world devoid of emotions, dignity and religion. But even then, there is a fine line between angering people through antics below the grade of a single-minded schoolyard bully and paving the way for extremism.
The far-right has been cultivating an increasing following in recent years and Islamophobia manifests itself in attacks on Muslims on the continent. As Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan put it mildly in remarks recently on what he called this “epidemic” of Quran burning, it all starts with “book burning.” “We know what happened after they burned books in Europe (in the past). It was followed by concentration camps,” he said at a news conference with his Hungarian counterpart last Friday. When Nazi sympathizers started public burning of books years before the start of World War II, Holocaust had not happened yet. But their mindset was strikingly similar to Paludans of today: Jews, liberals or left-wingers who penned those books they threw into bonfires were not part of “German” identity. In modern-day Europe, Muslims are not part of Swedish, Danish, German, French or any other country’s national identity according to the far-right fueled anti-immigrant ideology.
Thankfully, these countries have laws against hate speech in place too, though they are unable to prevent racists from hurling insults at any Muslim, any migrant or anyone they perceive as a foreigner they come across. Burning a book sacred for a group of people is equal to hate speech. One can only wonder when the far-right adherents and racists will push the issue to challenge hate speech laws banning their verbal attacks while public burnings of holy books are allowed.
*News editor at Daily Sabah