The repeated incidents of the burning and/or desecration of copies of the Quran in Sweden in recent months have sparked angry reactions in Arab and Islamic countries. These reactions have ranged from peaceful protests to calls for boycotting Swedish products, severing diplomatic relations, and even attacking the Swedish embassy in Baghdad, setting it ablaze.
However, despite these reactions, there seems to be no end to such provocative actions, which are widely regarded as a manifestation of "religious hatred" against nearly two billion people who follow the Islamic faith worldwide. This has prompted some Arab activists and intellectuals to urge for a different approach, advocating for "ignoring" such provocations to prevent further consequences and repercussions that might include giving notoriety to those responsible and thus encouraging others from doing the same. Moreover, such incidents may provoke Western governments to defend these actions, potentially harming the political and diplomatic interests of the nations witnessing the protests and sometimes causing harm to innocent lives.
These perspectives seem even more compelling when considering the recent actions of an extremist Danish group called “Danske Patrioter” (Danish Patriots). The group broadcasted a video showing a man burning what is believed to be the Quran and trampling the Iraqi flag in front of the Iraqi embassy in Denmark on July 21st, purportedly as a display of solidarity with Momika, the man who recently burned the Quran in Sweden.
Since the beginning of this year, Sweden has witnessed three separate incidents of burning and the desecration of pages from the Quran. In January 2023, the Swedish far-right extremist Rasmus Paludan set fire to a copy of the Quran near the Turkish embassy. Later, in June, Salwan Momika, a 37-year-old Iraqi refugee in Sweden, burned pages from the Quran in front of the largest mosque in Stockholm on the first day of Eid al-Adha.
Two weeks ago, Momika repeated his actions, this time trampling on the Quran without setting it on fire in front of his country's embassy in the Swedish capital. Concurrently, angry Iraqi protesters affiliated with the Shiite Sadr movement first attacked the Swedish embassy in Baghdad and, on the second occasion earlier this month, succeeded in setting it ablaze. The Iraqi authorities have referred 20 protesters to the judiciary on charges of storming and setting fire to the Swedish embassy.
Overall, these three incidents have elicited strong reactions in Arab countries. Officially, Arab and Islamic governments have summoned their Swedish ambassadors and formally protested against the "repeated and irresponsible provocative acts" that "foster hatred between religions and hinder dialogue among nations". Sweden has been accused of failing to put an end to these actions.
The recent incidents of burning and desecration of copies of the Quran in Sweden have resulted in a deterioration of relations between Iraq and Sweden. Baghdad had issued a strong warning, threatening to "sever diplomatic relations" should any Quran burning occur. So, in response to these latest incidents, the Iraqi government took decisive action, expelling the Swedish ambassador and recalling the acting Iraqi Chargé d'Affaires in Stockholm back to Baghdad, to protest what it has deemed as "utterly unacceptable."
In a statement, Baghdad announced: "The Iraqi Prime Minister, Mr. Mohammed Shayya' Al-Sudani, directed the Foreign Ministry to withdraw the acting Iraqi Chargé d'Affaires from the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm and requested the Swedish ambassador in Baghdad to leave Iraqi territory. This decision was made in light of Sweden giving repeated permission to burn the holy Quran, insulting Islamic sanctities, and desecrating the Iraqi flag." Additionally, Iraq suspended the operating license of Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications company, within its borders for the same reason.
Nevertheless, Iraq's Foreign Ministry, while condemning similar actions in Denmark, emphasized that "such acts fuel reactions and put all parties in an awkward position." The ministry urged the international community to confront these actions that "threaten global peace and social coexistence around the world" and ensured that protesters were prevented from reaching the Danish embassy in the Green Zone.
In response to these events, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) held an emergency meeting, calling for "unified and collective measures" to prevent any future incidents of Quran burning or its desecration anywhere in the world.
On an unofficial level, political, religious leaders, public figures, and citizens, both Muslim and Arab, have united in calling for the severance of diplomatic ties with Sweden and a boycott of its products. Iraq and Lebanon have witnessed massive protests echoing chants such as "Labbaik Ya Quran" and "Yes, yes to the Quran!", accompanied by expressions of disapproval towards Sweden, the West, and Israel. These protests have also seen the burning and trampling of the Swedish flag.
Calls for "restraint" and the "ignoring" of any provocative actions against Islam and the Quran in the West have emerged, aiming to prevent "perpetuating the negative stereotype of Arabs and Muslims in the West as violent and terrorists." Do you agree?
What is the appropriate diplomatic response?
While the US and French Foreign Ministries condemned the attack on the Swedish embassy in Baghdad and accused the Iraqi government of negligence, political experts and analysts argue that Iraq stands to suffer from the impact of any harm to foreign interests there. International law and diplomatic agreements impose strict obligations to protect foreign interests, embassies, and citizens.
Dr. Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a Political Science Professor at Cairo University, asserts that, "Desecrating or burning the Quran is not an exercise of freedom of expression because there are constraints on the use of this right in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which excludes actions that demean others and incite hatred and violence against them from freedom of expression."
Based on this, Dr. Mustapha believes that the Swedish court was unjustified in allowing this practice under the guise of freedom of expression. He emphasizes that "this is the discourse that Arab and Islamic governments should adopt to reject such actions."
Furthermore, Dr. Mustapha points out that Arab and Islamic governments opposing such actions have two diplomatic options, or paths, to protest them. The first: they can summon Swedish ambassadors and express their objections to this act, clarifying its serious consequences. Second, they can work collectively through the United Nations and its institutions, such as the Human Rights Council, to criminalize such acts on the grounds that they threaten international peace.
He commends several Arab and Islamic countries for pushing for a United Nations resolution that considers Quran burning and desecration as acts of hate that undermine friendly relations between nations. On July 12, the United Nations Human Rights Council, with support from several countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, adopted a resolution urging nations to review their laws that prevent prosecution on charges of "religious hatred."
Regarding civil society organizations in Arab and Islamic countries, Dr. Mustapha believes that the best course of action is to "ignore such acts because responding to them encourages more people to engage in such actions, often because their goal is fame."
Conversely, he argues that such offensive actions might sometimes have positive benefits, such as an increased interest in Islam and prompting people to explore its texts and what motivates some to burn them. Therefore, he considers that violent reactions are harmful and unproductive and may even support Islamophobia.
Dr. Mustapha continues, "Most Arab governments have adopted a moderate and prudent approach, expressing their objection to these actions but refraining from severing ties with Sweden. Even the Iraqi government condemned the attacks on the Swedish embassy on its soil. Such actions tarnish the image and reputation of the country that witnesses these assaults, creating a perception that the country isn't secure and is incapable of protecting foreign interests within its borders."
In conclusion, he advises governments to "educate their citizens about the rules of peaceful protest against such actions and the dangers of violence, such as attacking embassies or foreign interests, which ultimately does not lead to any positive change."
Potential harm to "the innocent"
Meanwhile, amidst the recent incidents, there have been calls from Arab activists and thinkers for "restraint" and the "ignoring" of any provocative actions against Islam and the Quran in the West. The aim is to avoid "perpetuating the negative stereotype that depicts Arabs and Muslims in the West as inherently violent and terrorists." These calls emphasize the importance of acknowledging the limitations of such actions in affecting real change concerning the disrespect towards the Quran and Islamic symbols.
"God doesn't need anyone to defend Him or His verses" and "Extremism begets more extremism, leading to harm for everyone involved".. Repeated Quran burnings in the West raise calls for "ignoring" them as a possible radical solution to prevent their recurrence
Some voices, such as Yemeni writer and activist Hind Al-Eryani, have taken to Twitter to assert that "attempting to provoke Swedes by burning the Swedish flag or desecrating images of the King of Sweden, who holds little significance to them, is misguided. Swedes do not possess a blind attachment to symbols, and their anger is more likely to be triggered by actions such as standing in the wrong line or littering in public places.. That's the only thing that will make them angry."
Similarly, Egyptian poet and translator Marwa Mamoun also urged people to maintain composure, highlighting that "God does not require anyone to defend Him or His verses." She refers to the Quran's stance on such matters in its verses, advising believers to disengage from those who dispute or ridicule its verses.
In light of recent events, Danish activist Asim Swed shares on Facebook that the Danish Refugee Council's office in Basra, Iraq, was attacked, fortunately without harm to anyone. The attack followed failed attempts by protesters associated with the Sadrist Movement to reach the Danish embassy. Their anger was in response to the Quran and the Iraqi flag being burned in front of the Iraqi embassy in Copenhagen.
Asim raises a pertinent question about the potential impact on innocent individuals in Europe and Iraq due to extremist acts. He points out that the majority of Danish Refugee Council workers in Iraq are Iraqi nationals, and they could have easily become innocent victims of the protesters' rage.
In statements to Raseef22, Asim said, "Extremism only begets more extremism, leading to harm for everyone involved. A single person like Muqtada al-Sadr mobilizes his followers to gain popularity, and today, some Iraqi people will be victims for nothing but their work with a Danish organization mainly helping Iraqis through projects like mine clearance in Basra."
The human rights activist clarifies, "Burning the Quran is condemned by the Danish government, but it is not considered a criminal offense under the law. Therefore, the government cannot prevent or prosecute someone for burning the Quran. What escapes the Arab mindset is that these individuals only need to inform the police 24 hours before they plan to protest at a specific location and time, so that the police can come to protect them."
Asim points out that the imams and Islamic institutions in Denmark are now urging their followers to "ignore these foolish actions because the perpetrators' goal is nothing more than seeking fame and money, as evident from the videos they share." He encourages religious organizations, civil society, and influential individuals in Arab and Islamic countries to adopt a similar approach, promoting "better understanding of what happens in Western countries, where everything is allowed and free."
Can Western governments prevent the recurrence of such acts in the future?
The pressing question remains: why don't Western governments simply prevent these provocative incidents, given their public denouncement and recognition of their negative impact on international relations? The answer consistently points to local laws and legislations that uphold freedom of expression, sometimes placing it above all other considerations.
Sweden's wide-ranging freedom of expression laws act as a formidable barrier against any security or political inclination to prevent the repetition of such acts. It's worth noting that Sweden has laws that criminalize hate speech against ethnic, national, and religious groups. However, burning sacred books is considered an acceptable form of criticism there.
It is worth mentioning that the police in Sweden have previously rejected requests for demonstrations that included plans to burn and/or desecrate the Quran before being compelled by the court to respect "individuals' freedom of expression," even if that involves burning holy books. The police had accused Momika of "incitement to hatred" for what he had done.
Meanwhile, Sweden's wide-ranging freedom of expression laws continue to present a significant obstacle to any security or political endeavor to prevent the recurrence of such acts. It's worth noting that Sweden has laws that criminalize hate speech against ethnic, national, and religious groups. However, burning sacred books is considered an acceptable form of criticism there, a stance upheld since Sweden abolished laws that criminalized criticizing and mocking religion in the 1970s.
It is unlikely that any legal amendments to criminalize such actions will occur anytime soon, especially as the current government relies on the support of the Sweden Democrats, the second-largest party in parliament, which is anti-immigration and very critical of Islam. In this regard, Ebba Busch, the Swedish Deputy Prime Minister from the Christian Democrats party, stated that Sweden alone determines its legislation and that it "will not bow to Islamists," adding, "burning sacred books is reprehensible, but it is not illegal."
Nevertheless, Swedish Prime Minister, Ulf Kristersson, has shown his country's "understanding" for the Islamic anger, while vehemently condemning the harm to Sweden's interests in the Middle East. He recently stated, "Of course, it is entirely unacceptable for people to illegally storm Swedish embassies in other countries," and added, "I also think that we need to consider what is happening in Sweden. It is a serious security situation, and there is no reason to insult others."
For its part, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a statement reported by Agence France-Presse, stated, "The Swedish government fully understands that the anti-Islam acts committed by individuals during protests in Sweden can be offensive to Muslims," continuing, "We strongly condemn these actions, which in no way reflect the views of the Swedish government," and reminding that "freedom of expression is a constitutionally protected right in Sweden."
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