On Thursday last week, July 20th, there was yet another anti-Muslim protest in Sweden in which an Iraqi-born refugee, Salwan Momika, kicked and stomped on the Holy Quran outside the Iraq Embassy. Following this, the Muslim population in countries like Iraq and Pakistan came out in crowds to voice their anger, and influential political leaders went so far as to urge Pakistan to cut all ties with Sweden. Pakistani Prime Minster Shehbaz Sharif declared that the desecration of sacred texts and rituals should not be regarded as a form of free speech, and pledged to initiate a campaign to end the sacrilege of holy books.
In the wake of this incident, however, certain individuals and groups in Pakistan are exploiting the event as an excuse to carry out retaliatory attacks against local Christians, falsely accusing them of blasphemy and vandalizing their homes. This was prompted after a local Muslim supposedly found a piece of paper that praised the incident in Sweden. Islamist groups have threatened and called for revenge against Christians, leaving Catholic Church leaders no choice but to request security from authorities.
The same individual, Salwan Momika, had previously set fire to the Holy Quran outside a Stockholm mosque under police supervision. His provocative behavior on June 28th this year was planned to coincide with one of the most important Islamic Holy festivals observed by Muslims around the world, Eid Ul Adha. Another similar protest was allowed on 16th July.
In response, Muslim countries came forward to condemn burnings, with Pakistani Prime Minister calling for peaceful protests which were staged in all major cities across Pakistan, with local religious leaders and scholars speaking out against desecration and an outraged public demanding retribution.
One would assume that there is a general consensus amongst people that the desecration of Holy Scriptures be regarded as hate speech. However, the reason we are seeing an increase in the number of these occurrences is because Sweden abandoned blasphemy laws in the 1970s, and only goes far as to protect hate speech against ethnic and religious groups, and people on grounds of sexual orientation. These demonstrations are regarded as appropriate criticism, protected by freedom of speech laws in Sweden’s constitution.
The Quran is the most significant text in existence for Muslims around the world, which is why on 12th July Pakistan introduced a resolution in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation stating that a sacrilegious act against the Muslim community and the incitement of hatred under the banner of religion is destructive and undermines religious concord and tolerance. It also goes against modern international law such as the ‘Declaration on the Elimination of all forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination based on Religion or Belief 1981’, which was specifically introduced to protect rights and freedoms on the basis of race, colour, sex, and religion. It underlines the prevalent issue of Islamophobia in western society and how this discrimination and intolerance further marginalizes the Muslim community.
On behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the same resolution was presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in hopes of collaborating with the Swedish government and the global community by calling together a session addressing religious hatred, and possible mechanisms and legislation to prevent such incidents in the future. The UNHCR scheduled an emergency meeting and had an urgent debate on the worrisome rise in premeditated and public acts of religious hatred. A resolution titled “Countering Religious Hatred Constituting Incitement to Discrimination, Hostility or Violence” was approved on July 11, and the Council urged the international community to commit to constructing and adopting new national laws, policies and political order of justice in order to promote common progress, prosperity and tackle acts of religious hatred by ensuring accountability.
Although the resolution was passed with states coming together to voice their disdain, 7 countries abstained from voting, while 12 opposed it altogether. Western countries defended free speech and were of the view that it conflicted with one’s right and freedom of expression. They stated that criticizing religion should be permitted, despite being offensive, since human rights were about safeguarding people, not religions or symbols and that this serves as a prerequisite to living in tolerant societies. Individuals should be able to decide what their beliefs are and to live up to them within the bounds of the law. According to free speech supporters, the demonstration stayed within the confines of the law and the individual merely used his constitutional freedom of expression.
Thus, the Swedish government rejected the notion that attacks on religion, particularly on religious texts or symbols constitute advocacy for hatred. This shows that it is becoming increasingly challenging to judge when freedom of expression becomes unacceptable and when hate speech or conduct should be legally outlawed.
There is no doubt that religion has always served as a backdrop for a conflict of ideologies and political issues, and concerns pertaining to blasphemy and indignity of one’s faith involve a clash between freedom of expression and the right to religious liberty. What makes matters even more difficult is the fact that religious hatred is most visible in violence, and it is through violence that it is most effectively expressed. These kinds of incidents are staged in order to express scorn and incite anger; to set individuals at odds with each other and to instigate one’s viewpoint into hatred and possibly violence.
This is why some liberal Swedish commentators classified the protest as hate speech as it singled out the Muslim community. The vandalism of religious sites and destruction of sacred books, icons and religious artifacts have, for centuries, been used to offend and provoke people and the rising tide in hate speech only makes them a more vulnerable target for abuse.
Religion is deeply rooted in today’s world, entangled with political, economic and social challenges, showing a particular complexity. One act of hatred can start a chain reaction whereby people are given another excuse to attack others based on their viewpoints. Although the passing of a resolution represents an unwavering and uncompromising stance regarding the subject, Sweden should carefully assess the right as per international standards and combat religious intolerance so as to eliminate the breeding ground of extremism. It is important to oppose and denounce the use of religion as a banner to create hallowed ground for conflicts.