The burning of a Quran in Sweden during an Islamic holiday has ignited global outrage, prompting serious questions in Europe about respect for religion and how far free speech should extend.
Should burning a sacred religious text fall under free speech protections?
An Iraqi Christian immigrant lit Islam’s holy text ablaze outside a Stockholm mosque during Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest holidays in Islam.
The man said the burning was an expression of his feelings towards Islam.
The man involved in the burning legally applied for and received permits to burn the Quran, with Swedish courts determining that refusing the permit would be an affront to his right to free speech.
As a result, the activist was allowed to burn the Quran, page by page, outside a Muslim house of worship. Swedish courts report that more permits to ban the Quran are now rolling in.
Muslim World Reacts
The Muslim world reacted with outrage, and protests soon erupted as word spread:
In the U.K., Muslim leaders warned that those who burn the Quran risk the wrath of Allah:
Protesters in Iraq even marched on the Swedish embassy. An influential Iraqi cleric was present, calling on the Iraqi government to break off relations with Sweden entirely over the event.
Nobody actually entered the embassy, but some got close – several members of the crowd climbed the wall outside, and many pushed through a gate. Police reportedly made little effort to stop them.
Meanwhile, other majority-Muslim countries offered condemnations as well.
The Iraqi government lambasted the Swedish government for allowing the burning in the first place. Jordan called it “a racist act of serious hate,” Egypt said it was “disgraceful,” Saudi Arabia called it “hateful” and “[without] justification.” Malaysia argued it was “offensive to Muslims worldwide.”
Free Speech or Hate Speech?
The incident has sparked renewed debate over whether anti-religious acts should be legally protected as free speech.
It has also underscored the ongoing tension between Muslim immigrants' religious beliefs and the liberal values of the Western nations they're settling in (you might recall a recent article we posted about a Muslim teen in Norway who refused to shake hands with his female principal).
These questions are particularly interesting in a nation like Sweden, which happens to be one of the most secular countries in the world – but with a growing Muslim population.
After seeing the outraged reactions to the burning of a sacred text, the Swedish government immediately went into damage control. Importantly, though, it stopped short of calling the burnings illegal.
Sweden “strongly rejects the Islamophobic act committed by individuals in Sweden,” the government said in a statement, clarifying that it “in no way reflects the opinions of the Swedish Government.”
To Burn or Not to Burn
So, what now?
Some in Sweden want to see the law changed; there is a small but vocal movement in Sweden to reclassify the burning of holy texts as hate speech, which is already illegal in Sweden.
However, most say that the reintroduction of blasphemy laws would be a regressive move, and that such protests – offensive as they are – must be allowed.
In the United States, for example, free speech protections extend to the burning of just about any symbol that one disagrees with – from the American flag to the Bible. There seems to be an understanding that the consequence of allowing free speech is sometimes hearing or seeing things that deeply offend.
In many other countries around the world, though, that is not the case.
What do you think? The protests were clearly intended to provoke strong reactions – mission accomplished. Should burning the Quran (or the Bible, the Torah, etc.) always be allowed?
Where does free speech stop and hate speech begin?