Setting light to a copy of the Holy Quran in Sweden by a far-right politician hurt the feelings of Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan and draw condemnation by Muslims from across the world.
To shed light on the issue, IQNA has reached out to Fahid Qurashi, a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Salford, Manchester.
Here is the full text of the interview:
IQNA: Is freedom of speech a good excuse for insulting the sanctities of other religions?
Qurashi: The burning of the Quran in Sweden was planned by Rasmus Paludan, leader of a farright Danish political party called Hard Line (Stram Kurs). Paludan was given a 5 year restraining order in 2013 for stalking a young man and exposed for inappropriate sexual conduct in online chatrooms with underage children in 2021. He claims to have previously burnt the Quran and had planned on doing it this week, before cancelling the event in the face of protests across Sweden that scared him.
In a 2018 video that he posted on YouTube, Paludan said Muslims and Islam being wiped off the Earth would be the ‘best thing’. Going further, and echoing Nazi sentiments of ‘final solutions’, he said after wiping Muslims and Islam off the face of the Earth ‘we would have reached our final goal’.
His tired defence for these Islamophobic stunts and remarks rests on claims to freedom of speech. This is a deliberately misleading claim because freedom of speech everywhere is legally restrained by a need to preserve order so that one cannot use free speech to incite violence and disorder. More importantly, the essence of freedom of speech is to speak truth to power – not the right to insult and punch down on vulnerable minorities that have been demonised and targeted for decades by counterterrorism and immigration rhetoric, policies, and practices across Europe and the wider western world.
In this case, rather than defend freedom of speech Pauldan and his ilk abused freedom of speech for their own political ends. In the 2019 Danish national elections, Paludan’s party Hard Line failed to win a single seat. He is now planning to run for office again in June 2023 but does not have enough signatures for his candidacy. To that end, he planned to visit parts of Sweden with significant Muslim populations during Ramadan to burn the Quran and build support for his candidacy by tapping into Islamophobia.
This kind of practice has now become routine as various states and politicians successfully use the idea of a Muslim threat for electoral gain and to justify the introduction of new legislation.
IQNA: How do you assess this incident as far as human rights are concerned?
Qurashi: Human rights violations are only considered when there is evidence of gross violations that are massive, systemic, and sustained. We can think of this incident as one that exists on a spectrum of Islamophobia that includes discrimination in the workplace, to the violence of counterterrorism in the ‘war on terror’. In other words, it sits within the broader space of Islamophobia which has become systemic and sustained in our culture and politics for decades. Such an approach can bring attention to incidents such as this but also the more seemingly mundane day to day aspects of Islamophobia and their effects in inducing fear and limiting freedoms, rights, and expression. Finally, the human rights framework can also highlight the power disparities in these incidents where marginalised groups are targeted by dominant groups in society.
IQNA: What is the responsibility of Muslim countries and organizations and also international organizations in the face of such incidents?
Qurashi: Various Muslim countries have issued statements condemning the Islamophobic stunt, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Kuwait, and Jordan. Iran and Iraq summoned the Swedish ambassadors to lodge official complaints and there was a protest outside the Swedish embassy in Tehran. Iraq went further by stating the incident could have ‘serious repercussions on relations between Sweden and Muslims in general, Muslim and Arab countries, and Muslim communities in Europe’.
IQNA: How can the Muslim community in Sweden and in other states answer to such provocations?
Qurashi: There have been protests in Sweden in response to the incident, but unsurprisingly, the Swedish authorities have responded in a way that fails to grasp the seriousness of burning a Quran for Muslims by condemning protestors as criminals and fixating on violent outbursts to denounce them. All of this does nothing to recognise the strength of feeling about this issue amongst a wider Muslim audience.
Aside from protesting, Muslims can organise on a single platform to denounce the stunt and demonstrate opposition across whole communities (much like Muslims did in the UK in response to a government counterterrorism strategy).
IQNA: Some observers believe that Sweden could have prevented the incident as it knew the history of this party and the intention to burn the Quran. Is it possible to hold the country and its police accountable for the incident?
Qurashi: As I said earlier, Paludan has boasted of previously burning a Quran and made his intentions clear early on. The problem with trying to hold Sweden to account is that racism and Islamophobia are institutionalised and structurally embedded and Sweden is no exception. In the context of the ‘war on terror’, in an effort to rationalise and justify war and death internationally and counterterrorism and immigration policies domestically, the west has cultivated, relied upon, and normalised Islamophobia. The communicative effect of state institutions and leaders peddling in Islamophobia is to normalise it for wider society. So the tactic of burning the Quran emerges from decades of Islamophobia which connects the teachings of Islam to terrorism where the solution is either a domestication of Islam and Muslims, or in the words of Paludan himself, essentially an eradication of Islam and Muslims.
In short, Sweden itself is culpable here in more ways than simply not trying to prevent this stunt from happening.
Interview by Mohammad Ali Haqshenas