Article written for the Civic Space Watch by Alexia Ozeel, ECF.
In Sweden and Denmark, there have been a series of public actions which included the burning of the Quran. Each time, it sparked worldwide condemnation and outrage.
In January, the leader of the Danish far-right political party ‘Hard Line’ burned a Quran and chanted anti-Muslim slogans during a demonstration in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm.
In June, in a public gathering that the Swedish police allowed to take place, a Christian Iraqi refugee living in Sweden burned the Quran in front of the Stockholm Central Mosque during the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha.
On July 24th, two members from the far-right ‘Danish Patriots’ group set fire to the Quran in front of the Iraqi embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark.
These burnings of the Quran take place in the context of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments that have been growing for several years across the EU and other Western countries (read examples here and here).
Freedom of expression and free speech
The burnings of the Quran have fueled discourses about what the freedom of expression and freedom of faith are. Is there a limit to tolerating hate speech? And many other arguments.
In Sweden and Denmark, the rights to freedom, expression, and protest are constitutionally protected, meaning that under the law, the burning of the Quran, and other religious scripts, is not prohibited.
Whilst the freedom to protest, expression and free speech are fundamental elements of democracy, these freedoms are weighed in many countries against the harm it can cause other people. In this case, these freedoms are weighed as they incited hatred and discrimination, which led to violent acts against people because of their supposed belonging to a religion.
The High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Miguel Moratinos issued statements condemning both acts of Quran burning in Sweden. In his speech, he stresses ”the importance of upholding the freedom of expression as a fundamental human right” but “also emphasizes that the act of Quran-burning amounts to an expression of hatred towards Muslims“.
This statement reflects the ideas in the United Nations Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites and the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech which expresses that: “addressing hate speech does not mean limiting or prohibiting freedom of speech. It means keeping hate speech from escalating into something more dangerous, particularly incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, which is prohibited under international law.”
UN resolution and international reactions
Several Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Morocco expressed their condemnation. In Iraq, the ambassador for Sweden was expelled and the embassy was set on fire and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suspended negotiations with Sweden regarding its NATO membership.
Even though Sweden and Denmark allowed the gatherings where the Quran was burned, both governments have condemned the Quran burnings.
In an official statement, the Swedish Foreign Minister, Tobias Billström, expressed that despite Sweden’s “constitutional right to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom to demonstrate”, the “desecration of the Quran, or any other holy scripture, is an offensive and disrespectful act, and a clear provocation”.
Danish authorities have also reacted by presenting a bill which would lead to banning the burning of the Quran in public and punishable by fines or up to two years in prison. More specifically, the law would prohibit the “improper treatment of objects of significant religious significance to a religious community”.
Additionally, several Muslim nations filed a motion at the United Nations Human Rights Council demanding action against the Quran burnings to prevent further acts of religious hatred.
In July, during an Informal High-level Meeting, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution Morocco proposed. The resolution was approved by 193 UN members and seeks “to counter hate speech” and “promote interreligious and intercultural dialogue and tolerance” by rejecting the “spread of hate speech which constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence”. The resolution also encourages UN member states and IGOs to address online hate speech on social media by launching public awareness campaigns to promote tolerance, human rights, and moderation.
Additionally, CSOs and activists play an important role advocating against discrimination and hate speech. CSOs, such as the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), have also condemned the Quran burnings.
Moreover, the EU is increasing efforts to tackle these issues. This year, it appointed a new coordinator, Marion Lalisse, to work with institutions and civil society to combat anti-Muslim hatred and discrimination across EU member states.
However, on a national level, Swedish MEP Evin Incir explained that “very few member states are taking actions that go hand in hand with far-right parties gaining power”, which explains why acts against Islam or the Quran by far-right groups have been multiplying in recent years.