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What should Sweden be doing after a man burned a Qur'an?
Saying one man's protest was "legal but not appropriate" is hardly a defense of free expression
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One week ago, while Muslims around the world celebrated the holiday of Eid-al-Adha, a man named Salwan Momika stood just outside the Stockholm Central Mosque in Sweden with a copy of the Qur’an, tore it up, placed a strip of bacon next to it, and set it on fire. The Iraqi Christian, who’s also a refugee, said his protest was intended to get the book banned in the country.
Most of the Muslims surrounding him at the time appeared to dismiss him as a random kook just trying to get a rise out of them. They didn’t want to give him the attention he clearly craved. It’s the best possible reaction to all this. As we’ve seen when Christians pull the same stunt, the objective is to get a reaction, not to destroy objects. (After all, it’s not like there’s only one copy of any of these books.) If Momika wanted to make a point, he could have burned the Qur’an anywhere; he chose to do it in a place where it could generate the most outrageous reactions.
But the act has now created a global controversy that threatens to chill relationships between the secular country and the Muslims in it and could delay Sweden’s entry into NATO.
Destroying or desecrating a holy book is hardly new. A decade ago, a Florida pastor named Terry Jones announced plans to destroy nearly 3,000 copies of the Qur’an, something he’d done in the past under the mistaken belief that Muslims wanted to impose Sharia Law in the U.S. He was urged not to go through with the stunt by U.S. politicians and military leaders who said it would put American troops stationed in Middle Eastern countries in harm’s way. He was arrested just before his stunt for supposedly unrelated reasons.
Even in Sweden, right-wing activists have burned the Qur’an in recent years.
The opposition to it is, almost universally, never about restricting free speech. The concerns have to do with needlessly antagonizing peaceful Muslims. The act of desecration, as these guys go about it, sends a message that Muslims are unwelcome in society. Whatever other reasons they may have for their actions are lost to the public, which makes their protests seem like an act of hate more than anything else.
That’s a point Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson made last week, when he said very bluntly, “It’s legal but not appropriate.” He was, of course, concerned that Turkey, which (along with Hungary) is currently holding up Sweden’s bid to enter NATO, would use one man’s protest to block membership for the entire country. A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department echoed those thoughts, saying, “The burning of religious texts is disrespectful and hurtful, and what might be legal is certainly not necessarily appropriate.”
The country’s police charged Momika with “agitation against an ethnic group,” but it’s not clear if that charge will lead to serious punishment because, again, there’s a free speech angle to consider. Sweden has freedom of expression, but it’s not absolute. It’s possible that they can punish him for lighting a fire during a heat wave.
Whatever Sweden is trying to do to quell the controversy, Turkey’s not buying any of it:
Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan criticised Wednesday’s incident saying it was unacceptable to allow anti-Islam protests in the name of freedom of expression. “Turning a blind eye to such atrocious acts is to be complicit,” he said on Twitter.
All of this puts Sweden in a difficult position: How can the country defend freedom of speech while making clear that certain non-violent expressions of beliefs should also be condemned?
The courts in Sweden have rightly blocked any attempt by Swedish police to prevent anti-Qur’an demonstrations on free speech grounds. In fact, Momika’s protest occurred only after a court overturned an attempt to block it. But that doesn’t make the nation’s political goals any easier.
In the past week, Morocco has recalled its ambassador to Sweden, Islamic protesters stormed the Swedish embassy in Iraq (at least until security forces were called in to stop them), the 57-state Organisation of Islamic Cooperation called for measures to prevent future desecration of the Qur’an, and the United Nations Human Rights Council plans to meet to discuss a path forward. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin said burning the Qur’an was a criminal act in his country. Which is ironic since there’s reason to believe Russia was behind a Qur’an-burning demonstration by right-wing activists.
(Incidentally, some of the protesters in Iraq burned rainbow flags, which is hardly any different from the action they’re fighting against.)
Pope Francis also argued that no holy book should be desecrated, a statement that missed the point by a mile:
“Any book that is considered sacred to its authors must be respected out of respect for its believers and freedom of expression must never be used as an excuse to undermine others,” the pope said. Anyone who allows these acts must be “refuted and condemned,” the pope said.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif of Pakistan is now calling for nationwide protests on Friday in defense of the Qur’an.
This is where people in power are getting it wrong.
Just because people cherish a certain book doesn’t mean everyone else needs to give it the same respect. The problem with Momika’s protest is that, regardless of his rationale, he burned the Qur’an in order to get a rise out of Muslims. He wanted to anger them. He waited until it was a Muslim holiday, then went to a mosque to stage his demonstration and piss everyone off. None of that is a legal problem. All of that is a strategic problem.
That’s what politicians need to condemn. They need to unequivocally defend the freedom of expression while also condemning the intent of this particular protest. There’s no contradiction there. They can pledge their unwavering support for freedom of religion and the safety of practicing Muslims without ceding any ground on freedom of speech or expression.
If the best thing you can say about free speech is that it’s “legal,” it’s hardly a powerful defense of a major pillar of democracy. By saying that, Sweden’s prime minister seems to imply he would criminalize book burning if he could. That’s not helping his case.
Saying a book that others respect can never be destroyed—or, similarly, that a taboo of one religion must be obeyed by everyone else—plays right into the zealots’ hands.
On the flip side, by treating the government of Sweden as if it’s in cahoots with a single lone wolf protester, the leaders of Islamic countries are only making matters worse. Arguably on purpose. Anything to inflame passions against the West.
There’s no way to criticize religion that doesn’t anger the people who belong to it, even though some people (like Momika) clearly want to poke the bear by going to non-violent extremes. You’ll never hear the leaders of those Islamic countries explain what a sensible protest against their faith would look like because they don’t believe such a thing exists. They’re not against this guy’s protest; they oppose all criticism of their religion. That’s why their words can’t be taken seriously.
Global leaders right now fail to recognize that distinction. They’re trying to condemn Momika while only tepidly defending free speech. None of it is working. Just look at this statement:
“The Swedish government fully understands that the Islamophobic acts committed by individuals at demonstrations in Sweden can be offensive to Muslims,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. “We strongly condemn these acts, which in no way reflect the views of the Swedish government,” it added.
The ministry added that Sweden had a “constitutionally protected right to freedom of assembly, expression and demonstration”.
Condemning the act and distancing the government from them are wise moves. But notice that there’s no mention of why Sweden values the act of peaceful protest or freedom of expression. Only that they have to. Like it’s an obligation instead of a cherished principle. It’s a missed opportunity to turn this misguided protest into a broader defense of the nation’s values.
Until they admit that freedom of speech requires their countries to permit speech they personally don’t like—and that that’s a valuable principle worth defending in part because it creates a peaceful way for people to push back against those actions—they’re only going to chip away at their own values.
There’s an interesting side note to all this: In January, a Muslim living in Sweden announced plans to burn a Torah scroll outside Stockholm’s Israeli embassy. A sort of tit-for-tat demonstration after a right-wing politician burned a Qur’an outside a mosque. He wanted to prove there was a double standard in how Muslims and Jews were treated.
The Swedish government granted the Muslim man’s request for his protest, as they should have, but the protest never occurred. That’s because local Muslim leaders allegedly convinced the man not to go through with it. They appealed to the misguided strategy of it all, not his right to do it. They, too, value the freedom of speech. They also know that burning something holy to make a point isn’t a message that’ll get through to the public. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Momika never got that message. Now no one is talking about his announced mission. By that logic, his demonstration didn’t work. It only made existing grievances worse.
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