Hate speech or free speech over Koran burning in Scandinavia - Hindustan Times
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Hate speech or free speech over Koran burning in Scandinavia

ByHindustan Times
Feb 28, 2023 07:13 PM IST

The article has been authored by Mehdi Hussain, assistant professor, department of political science, Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi.

The recent events of burning of the holy Koran in Scandinavian countries are examples of growing intolerance against Muslims in Europe. The rise of populist, anti-Islam and anti-immigrant political parties has aggravated the public debate over socio-cultural integration versus mainstreaming of immigrants. Multicultural policies have taken an ‘assimilationist’ turn, for example, in the Netherlands, Denmark or Sweden.

The Swedish Prime Minister (PM) Ulf Kristersson condemned the burning of the Koran, calling it as a part of an exercise of freedom of speech, under the protection of state police.(Shutterstock) PREMIUM
The Swedish Prime Minister (PM) Ulf Kristersson condemned the burning of the Koran, calling it as a part of an exercise of freedom of speech, under the protection of state police.(Shutterstock)

The line between hate crimes and freedom of speech is ‘fuzzy’ produced by the process of ‘othering’ of foreign cultures different from mainstream Swedish or Danish cultures. The Swedish Prime Minister (PM) Ulf Kristersson condemned the burning of the Koran, calling it as a part of an exercise of freedom of speech, under the protection of state police. It, thus, downplays it from being recognised as an act of violence or hate in a country where burning a Bible or a Torah constitutes a violence. The desecration of the Koran by the leader of the far-Right took place on January 21outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, Sweden and again days later in front of a mosque in Copenhagen, Denmark. Then, on January 23, a leader of the far-Right group Pegida tore and burned the holy book in The Hague.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, hatred directed at Muslims has become a challenge within European societies. Winning elections of populist leaders like Pim Fortyun in the Netherlands or increasing vote share for Rasmus Paludan in Denmark shows the changing political dynamics that influence the mainstream political parties. Populist parties target specific immigrant integration policies for accommodating foreign cultures in education, housing and employment and demand for mainstreaming of minority cultures through incorporation into policies aimed at general public. Immigration and integration of immigrants, thus, constitute cores issues of far-Right political parties.

In Sweden, according to the United States Department of State’s Report on International Religious Freedom 2021, a regional court put a ban on hijabs, burqas and niqabs for students and employees in pre-schools and elementary schools in 2020. In May 2020, former PM Stefan Lofven announced that no new religious-oriented schools should be established, supporting the demand of the Social Democratic Party, third largest political party of Sweden, to put a ban on this by 2023. Its leaders further made denigrating comments about Jews and Muslims. The party advocates for a ban on the Islamic call to prayer. In Denmark, a mosque in Aabenraa was vandalisd three times since 2019. Then, anti-Semitic attacks were made in Aalborg cemetery. Similarly, Danish laws prohibit religious symbols and face coverings in public places – punishable acts with fines, and ban religious slaughters (kosher and halal) of animals. There was a proposal to ban Islamic call to prayer in the Copenhagen municipality in April 2020. In May, the Danish People’s Party proposed to include 2005 controversial cartoon depiction of the Prophet Muhammad into school curriculums as an example of free speech.

Burning religious texts has infuriated those who advocate peaceful resolutions to social tensions and particularly, the Muslim world. Turkey cancelled a visit from Sweden’s defence minister following the Koran burning last month. It has threatened to block the entry of Sweden into NATO and called for Sweden to first respect security interest of Turkey. The European Commission has recommended Swedish authorities to take measures to prevent burning of the Koran. Its spokesperson stated that racism, xenophobia and racial and religious hatred go against the values of the European Union.

These incidents have created ‘ethnic divide’, particularly ‘normalisation’ of Islamophobia within European societies. Islamophobia in Sweden: National Report 2022 highlights the securitization of Muslim civil societies, on the one hand, and anti-Muslim radicalisation in public spheres like online platforms, on the other. They give rise to distrust and insecurity among several religious groups, for instance, a counter demonstration against Rasmus Paludan’s anti-Muslim protest under police protection on May 20, 2020 in Malmo, Sweden. European Muslim Forum states that these acts constitute an attempt to deny the growing role of Muslims in Europe, and that Muslims are against burning of any religious book. The Jewish communities likewise have condemned the racial hatred against Muslims. In 2022, a leader of the Christian Democratic Party demanded the police for shooting more ‘Islamists’ after the riots that took place in response to an anti-Muslim burning of Koran.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) published its first official document, General Policy Recommendation No. 5 to tackle anti-Muslim racism and discrimination in December 2021, later adopted on March 1, 2022. And, the United Nations passed a resolution to declare March 15 as ‘International Day to Combat Islamophobia’.

The European Islamophobia Report 2021 states that major countries like France in Europe are ‘investing less in the fight against Islamophobia, and more…into normalizing Islamophobia’. It is clear that Sweden needs to strengthen the constitutional practice of religious freedom. Sikander Siddique of the Free Greens parliamentarian of Denmark lamented that the government is not doing enough to denounce hate crimes against Muslims in public places. Later, he and his family became the targets of hate speech. It is, however, challenging to fight against hate speech/violence without addressing first the normalized and institutionalised Islamophobia in government practices implemented with or without anti-religious laws. The governments need to recognize the impairment of anti-terrorism policies on Muslim communities across Europe. Curbing disinformation and misinformation campaigns can prevent promotion of Islamophobia among local communities.

Freedom of speech without adequate restraints has the potential to hurt public sentiment that can cause social rift. It is often politicized for pursuing vested interests of political parties by provoking public sentiment. Both Denmark and Sweden have legislated hate speech laws. In order to remove double standards on free speech, they need to reinforce their commitments to hate speech laws aimed at prohibiting threats or contempt for religious faiths, repeatedly used by political parties. Citizens should be encouraged to celebrate March 15 as ‘International Day to Combat Islamophobia’ in order to promote tolerance of cultural diversity and a feeling of communal coexistence. Further, such hate crimes could be brought within the ambit of EU’s Radicalization Awareness Network which addresses issues of radicalization and extremism coming from both internal and external dimensions. There is a need to strengthen the global approach to migration as an effort towards ‘ensuring freedom, security and justice’ which is a central agenda for the European Union.

The article has been authored by Mehdi Hussain, assistant professor, department of political science, Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi.

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