On Saturday, far-right activist Rasmus Paludan set fire to a copy of the Holy Qur’an in front of the Turkish Embassy in the Swedish capital, Stockholm. He was allowed to do so by the police, who surrounded him while he deliberately carried out this act. It was not an isolated incident, as the Swedish-Danish national is a repeat offender. He had previously been convicted for racist abuse. He has committed similar acts before, provoking violent protests in Sweden last year, when he went on a tour of the country and publicly burned copies of the Qur’an.
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson condemned the desecration, as have most governments, and the event led to protests around the world, harming Sweden’s reputation and its relations with the Muslim world. More immediately, the incident may delay Sweden’s bid to join NATO and further sour its relationship with Turkiye, which had already been angry at Sweden’s harboring of Kurdish activists.
While European countries struggle to contain the violence perpetrated by anti-immigrant criminals, including anti-Muslim groups, and deal with the root causes of their violence, little is done to contain their hate speech or Islamophobia. While the overwhelming majority of Europeans reject their violent tactics, their rhetoric is moving from the fringes to the mainstream. Rantings against Islam are gradually becoming common in political campaigns and everyday discourse.
This process threatens to normalize hate speech, especially Islamophobia, in many parts of Europe. Confusing incitement with freedom of speech has made it difficult to address this growing threat. However, while freedom of expression is a universal value enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international agreements have attached duties associated with its exercise. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the main human rights instrument adhered to by most countries, seeks to address that balance. While it holds that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression,” it adds that the exercise of such a right “carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions,” including “for the protection of national security or of public order or of public health or morals.” Many countries have included such safeguards in their national laws.
While opposition to illegal migration or excessive legal migration is normal and falls within freedom of speech and legitimate political discourse, desecrating the Qur’an denigrates the faith of about 2 billion people around the world who have nothing to do with these local issues. In the case of Sweden, it has also inflamed ethnic animosities within the country and damaged its reputation and the exercise of its foreign policy, threatening its key security interests.
The timing of Saturday’s incident in Stockholm is curious when taking into consideration the geopolitical dimensions, such as the war in Ukraine, the changing nature of Sweden’s relationship with NATO and the talks with Turkiye on that subject. Such timing raises a question about outside influence on Sweden’s Islamophobes and possible foreign manipulation.
Kristersson condemned the burning of the Qur’an in Stockholm as “deeply disrespectful.” He tweeted on Saturday: “Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of democracy. But what is legal is not necessarily appropriate. Burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act.” He expressed sympathy “for all Muslims who are offended by what has happened in Stockholm today.”
Muslim countries and others expressed outrage at the incident, indicating a universal rejection of the desecration of the Qur’an as a form of protest or political expression. Muslim governments expressed astonishment that the Swedish authorities had allowed it to take place, stressing that freedom of expression must be exercised in a responsible manner. Hundreds of protests have been held worldwide since the incident.
Hate groups such as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident, known as Pegida, have done similar things and agitated against Islam and Muslims in other European countries, including burning a copy of the Qur’an in Amsterdam on Tuesday. Since Pegida was founded in Dresden, Germany, in 2014, its extremist views have crept into mainstream political discourse and the far right has made significant political gains in several European countries, including Sweden.
Pegida and similar groups have repeatedly incited against Muslims, stoking irrational fears of being overrun by immigrants, especially Muslims. At times, they use Qur’an burning as a lightning rod and a tool to attract attention, rally support, recruit new followers and incite violence.
Confusing incitement with freedom of speech has made it difficult to address this growing threat.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Overwhelming majorities in European countries, as elsewhere, still reject hate groups and especially abhor their incendiary tactics, but they have been helpless to stop the growing popularity of their divisive rhetoric. It has been an uphill battle for moderates to contain the rise of such groups, as they have gradually attached themselves to political movements that have made significant inroads in European legislatures.
However, while Europe tries to grapple with this festering problem within its borders, it would be useful to put it on the agenda for dialogue with Muslim countries and organizations. Just as it is important to double down on efforts to fight hate crimes and pursue legal means to deal with the excesses of hate speech, it is becoming necessary to discuss Islamophobia seriously in political dialogues to enhance mutual understanding and find remedies for this problem. Such discussions are also needed to guard against any ruptures in relations, temporary or otherwise, because of Islamophobic incidents, and to minimize their exploitation for political ends.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1