Salwan Momika protests outside a mosque in Stockholm on June 28, 2023, the same day Muslims celebrate the holiday of Eid al-Adha. During the protest, Momika burned a copy of the Qur’an [Source: AFP]

Burning the Quran is not free speech

Published on 11 Aug 2023

Over the past several weeks a number of individuals in Sweden and Denmark have desecrated and burned copies of the Quran, the holy book of nearly 2 billion Muslims worldwide.

While these acts have rapidly increased in the past few weeks, they’re sadly not new as such displays of hatred have taken place throughout Europe for decades. Often used as a stunt to gain media attention, far-right personalities and politicians such as Geert Wilders have repeatedly targeted the Quran, as part of their Islamophobic agenda. Wilders, a Dutch politician, became notorious for his openly racist and discriminatory claims about Islam and Muslims, even comparing the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and vowing to ban the holy book of Muslims in 2016.

Another politician who has engaged in desecrating the Quran is Rasmus Paludan, a Danish far-right politician and founder of the far-right Stram Kurs party. In 2019, the party demanded the “deportation of all Muslims and the preservation of the country for its ‘ethnic community.’” Paludan has made a name for himself due to Islamophobic views and has regularly engaged in “Quran burning tours” primarily carrying out these hateful acts in Muslim-majority areas of Denmark. In January of this year, he staged a Quran burning event in Stockholm outside the Turkish embassy, which involved a tirade against Islam and immigration and followed with him burning a copy of the holy book.

Apart from these far-right politicians who are unapologetic in their hostile and racist views against Muslims, there have also been regular individuals who’ve engaged in these provocative acts. On June 28th, 2023 Salwan Momika, an Iraqi refugee who wants to ban the Quran in Sweden, stood outside Stockholm Central Mosque and repeatedly desecrated the Quran by tearing it up and lighting it on fire. Not only did Momika carry out this show, which also involved laying a strip of bacon on the holy book and stamping on it with his foot, outside an Islamic place of worship, he tactically chose to do so on the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha. As Swedish Muslims gathered to offer Eid prayers at the mosque during which they recited words from the Quran, Momika chose to desecrate the sacred text right outside. The agenda was very clear: he sought to provoke the community and incite hatred against Muslims.

Since the June incident, there have been near weekly incidents of Quran burnings in Sweden and Denmark and even more requests to approve such hateful acts, many carried out by individuals who hold animosity towards Islam and Muslims.

In response, a number of Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, Morocco, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Jordan have condemned such public displays of Islamophobia. Pope Francis also lent his support and condemned Momika’s actions, saying he feels “angry and disgusted” to see the Muslim holy book desecrated. Internationally, it led to Pakistan calling for an emergency session at the UN Human Rights Council, resulting in the passage of a resolution on “countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” on July 12th. The resolution called for condemnation of attacks targeting the Quran, describing them as “acts of religious hatred.”

A number of western countries, including the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, opposed the resolution citing their commitments to free speech. While the representatives of these countries condemned the Quran burnings, with the German envoy describing them as “dreadful provocation,” they felt that by banning such displays of hatred, it could infringe upon individuals’ right to freedom of speech.

It seems these representatives view free speech as an absolute, but that’s not the reality. Insulting the president or head of state in a number of European countries can land someone in prison for periods ranging from months to years. For example, in Denmark, defaming the king or the head of government can cost offenders up to four years in prison. Additionally, holocaust denial is illegal in many European countries and rightfully so as often such dangerous historical revisions are used to justify antisemitism. There are limitations in place based on the potential harmful consequences of certain speech and expression on wider society.

Too often, claims of free speech have been wielded to justify blatant Islamophobic rhetoric and actions that aim to harm Muslims around the globe. The characterization of Quran burnings as being protected by free speech is incorrect given the intentions behind these actions. The perpetrators hold deeply Islamophobic views and purposefully choose the Quran as the visual in their performance, given the importance of the sacred scripture in the lives of Muslims and its centrality in the religion of Islam. The Quran is not merely a book as Muslims believe it to be the literal word of God and thus “treat it with utmost respect and reverence.” By choosing the Quran as the object of their protest, these individuals are not practicing their rights to free speech, rather they seek to provoke, harass, and incite hatred against a community that is already facing increased levels of hate crimes and discrimination.

Islamophobia in Europe has become an everyday threat and experience for Muslims on the continent. In the past two decades there have been rising hate crimes, targeting of mosques, the mainstreaming of far-right parties, increasing discriminatory legislation, targeting of Muslim civil society, and the normalization of Islamophobic rhetoric in the media and politics. A 2021 report published by the Swedish National Crime Prevention Council found that Muslims are the most targeted religious group in the country, as 51% of hate crimes against religious groups were Islamophobic. In 2019, the Danish national Police published a report that Muslims made up 56% of the reported 112 cases of religiously-motivated hate crimes. Anti-Muslim racism is present from the streets to the seats of power as mainstream politicians have played a role in scapegoating the Muslim community in an effort to win votes. This is exemplified in blatantly racist policies instituted over the years by a number of governments, including Denmark’s “ghetto deal,” a law passed in 2018 with the aim being to forcibly assimilate the country’s Muslim population. Some of the hostile and disturbing measures in the law include “forcing immigrants to put their children into daycare for 25 hours a week from the age of one, automatically doubling the sentences for crimes committed in ghetto areas; and setting quotas on kindergartens so that they can have no more than 30% of their children from immigrant backgrounds.” There is no denying that Islamophobia is acceptable on the continent, making it so Muslims in Europe live in constant fear of what’s to come.

Therefore, choosing to burn the Quran, a sacred text for a community that already faces discrimination and violence is not an expression of free speech; it is bigoted act that encourages hate crimes, incites hatred, and sows greater divisions in society at a time when social cohesion and understanding is needed the most.