Diplomacy and legal reform can prevent Europe’s next Quran burning

Lawmakers, religious leaders and intellectuals should work together to set a new standard for mutual respect

The burning of Islam’s holy book by a man in Sweden sparked protests across the Muslim world. AP
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In the wake of the recent Quran burning incident in Sweden on the morning of Eid Al Adha, I said in a tweet: “There is a difference between freedom of speech and freedom of destruction. To permit the burning or desecration of the Quran is not part of freedoms but reflects religious extremism and hatred. As Western countries have called on Muslim countries to combat extremism and extremists, they have a duty to combat extremism within their societies and prevent their citizens from violating Muslim’s sanctities under the slogan of freedom of speech.”

It is worth noting that some European societies are transitioning toward a post-Christian era, as evident from low church attendance rates. For example, only 9 per cent of the population in Sweden go to church at least once a month, and 10 per cent do so in Denmark.

While religiosity may be decreasing in native European communities, it should be acknowledged that it is quite a different matter among immigrant populations. Drawing false equivalences based on these differences can lead to misunderstandings. One manifestation of this is indifference toward the burning of a holy book, such as the Quran, in native non-religious communities, where it may not carry the same impact as it does for a religious individual.

Desecration of the Quran is not part of freedoms but reflects religious extremism and hatred

When dealing with this issue, it is important to engage politicians and intellectuals in religious matters, just as we might engage of religious leaders in the public sphere (even when it has negative results). Rather than restricting freedom of speech, solutions should involve nurturing public awareness and opinion that encourages collaboration among politicians, religious scholars, spiritual leaders and intellectual elites.

Pope Francis stressed that the burning of the Quran is an abhorrent act, saying: "Any book considered holy should be respected to respect those who believe in it.”

"Freedom of speech should never be used as a means to despise others and allowing that is rejected and condemned", he added.

Nonetheless, questions of law and legal reform are also key in protecting societies from the consequences of religious hatred. The desecration of the Quran in Stockholm was an outrageous and abhorrent incident by all standards, and should be treated by the international community as an act that incites religious hatred. As such, it should be legally punishable.

Finland has taken a notably proactive stance in this regard. The country already criminalises “breach of the sanctity of religion”, which includes publicly defaming or desecrating something a religious community holds sacred. Finnish police have said burning a copy of the Quran would likely constitute a breach and be punishable under the law.

As part of its own orientation towards countering such offensive acts with diplomacy, the UAE has consistently expressed its clear position rejecting all practices aimed at destabilising security and stability, and which contradict humanitarian and moral values. This position was repeated, for instance, when a copy of the Quran was burnt by an extremist in the Dutch capital in January. At the time, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed the need to respect religious symbols and sanctuaries, and to stay away from incitement and polarisation at a time when the world needs to work together to spread the values of tolerance and co-existence, and renounce hatred and extremism.

This position is in line with the UAE's explicit condemnation of the storming of the Al Aqsa Mosque by Israeli forces (also in January). The Emirates considered such provocative actions as non-compliance with the current historical and legal status of the holy shrines in Jerusalem, which could be destabilising to the fragile situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, and represented a dangerous development that distances the region from the path of peace to which we all aspire.

At the same time and in the same context, the UAE also condemned the attack (carried out in January 2023 by Jewish extremists) on the Christian cemetery on Mount Zion near the Old City of Jerusalem, demanding that those responsible for violating the sanctity of cemeteries and vandalising this important historical and religious landmark held accountable for their deeds, noting that these heinous acts were part of a series of attacks on religious sanctities.

Incidents like these only enable militants from each side to exploit and spread their extremist narratives and call for more violence and intolerance. That in turn poisons communities, undermines national state institutions and tears apart the bond of citizenship and the principles of human fraternity in a world already full of many challenges.

In my recent book on religious diplomacy, I have pointed out that a key priority of that endeavour is to initiate a constructive dialogue on how to strike a balance that upholds the freedom of speech while at the same time preventing any offence or humiliation to religious or cultural groups, their symbols or sacred matters. It is critical to recognise that such offence or humiliation has a very real potential to incite more violence and provoke retaliation. Through diplomatic efforts and legal reform alike, those are outcomes it would be wise to avoid.

Published: July 06, 2023, 5:00 AM