Stop burning holy texts in the name of free speech. Religious belief deserves protection too.

Protest against Quran-burning in Turkey
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On 14 July, Swedish police said they had granted permission for a protest which would include burning holy texts outside the Israeli embassy in Stockholm. The controversial protest, which has raised concerns around respect for religious beliefs, is scheduled for Saturday 15 July. It comes just weeks after a man set fire to pages of the Quran outside Stockholm’s main mosque.

So far, there seems to be little information on who has organised Saturday’s protest. According to Agence France-Presse (AFP):

The demonstration would include a burning of the Torah and the Bible… in response to the Koran burning protest and would be an expression in support of freedom of speech, according to the application to police.

But I don’t need to know who’s organising this ‘protest’, or why, in order to know that it is not only misguided but utterly deplorable.

Religious belief: the freedom to be

Being a religious minority living in the West is a grinding experience. This is particularly the case for Muslims. The constant superiority of Western mores and laws wears you down to the point where faith itself becomes an act of defiance. Few issues reflect a supposed ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and Islam more so than the conflict between religious belief and freedom of expression.

The trope that Muslims’ desire for respect towards their religion violates Western ‘freedom of expression’ constantly remains under the surface. It also rears its ugly head periodically. We saw it with the Rushdie Affair, with the Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, with the Charlie Hebdo debacle. And now we see it with the burning of the Quran in Sweden.

Proponents of free speech will say that freedom of speech includes ‘freedom to offend’. What they don’t realise, however, is that for people of faith, degradation of their religion and its associated symbols goes far beyond mere ‘offence’.

Read on...

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For those who adhere to a religion, it forms a part of their identity. It’s not simply something they believe – rather it constitutes an integral part of who they are. Freedom of religion, therefore, isn’t just the freedom to be religious. It is the freedom to be. The freedom to affirm what you believe to be true, and to live your life accordingly.

I don’t expect non-religious people to understand the pain felt by a person of faith when seeing their faith being humiliated. However, the issue here is not respect for beliefs, but respect for human beings. What we are asking for is not reverence towards the Quran, the Torah, or the Bible. It is basic human empathy.

Hierarchy of freedoms

Stockholm police stressed that in line with Swedish legislation, they granted permits for people to hold public gatherings and not the activities conducted during them. Carina Skagerlind, press officer for Stockholm police, said:

The police does not issue permits to burn various religious texts – the police issues permits to hold a public gathering and express an opinion.

What an absurd rationalisation. Following the Quran-burning, Swedish authorities said they had opened an investigation against the perpetrator over “agitation against an ethnic group”. Which begs the question: if they know the desecration of religious texts constitutes “agitation against an ethnic group”, and they know the protest they approved involves this action, why are they approving it?

The behaviour of authorities in these situations demonstrates a truth I’ve come to know all too well: freedom of expression is only protected for those agitating against marginalised and oppressed groups of people.

Meanwhile, people from marginalised groups must stick together. It is for this reason, and also due to being a person of faith, that I will always condemn the desecration of sacred texts. If you can’t make your point in a way that shows empathy, especially for marginalised groups, then I have no interest in what you have to say.

Featured image via YouTube/Al Jazeera

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse

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  • Show Comments
    1. The writer is correct and deserves support.
      I am a secular person with no religious affiliation or belief.
      I am a socialist and a humanitarian.
      We must always stand in solidarity with marginalised groups.
      We must hope that they will stand with us and support our calls for justice thru-out the world.

      1. Being a religious minority or an atheist in a country that elevates one particular religious delusion as the only true religion is also a ‘grind’, as the author puts it. Christians living in Islamic states or in Israel have a really hard time, as do atheists. Muslims are being persecuted and murdered in Hindu-dominated India. 69 countries, almost incredibly, still have anti-blasphemy laws.

        I am a socialist too, but your call for religious people to stand with us is naive at best. I suggest you read a little history starting with the events of the Iranian revolution in 1979 when leftists, like you, stood with Muslim believers and hoped that they would share power once they had toppled the secular, US-installed Shah. Sadly, as was utterly predictable, the religious zealots ensconced themselves in the palaces and the parliament; the leftists found themselves in prison cells.

        Religious zealots might appear to be a marginalised group, but they are always looking to take over and become the only power in town.

    2. To paraphrase….’…. Few issues reflect a supposed ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and Islam more so than the conflict between religious belief and freedom of expression…..Proponents of free speech will say that freedom of speech includes ‘freedom to offend’. What they don’t realise, however, is that for people of faith, degradation of their religion and its associated symbols goes far beyond mere ‘offence’…..For those who adhere to a religion, it forms a part of their identity. It’s not simply something they believe – rather it constitutes an integral part of who they are. Freedom of religion, therefore, isn’t just the freedom to be religious. It is the freedom to be.’

      When does freedom of expression become ‘hate speech’?

      This is a complicated balancing act. Pro-Israel elements have argued that because Israel is ‘the’ Jewish state that criticism of it can be ‘antisemitic’. I think they are (largely) wrong. They merge Judaism with Israel – beliefs with a country. They very notion of a religious state – a ‘Jewish’ state – seems to be to be by definition difficult to square with the freedom of those who do not share the religion and have criticisms of the ‘Jewish’ state. Zionists (who are the most strident supporters of a Jewish State) sought to resolve this conflict by arguing that Israel is both ‘Jewish AND Democratic’, and therefore religiously accommodating. (Until recently anyway….).
      In the case of Islam I can see that an attack on the Quran is an attack not on an Islamic state (such as Pakistan) but an attack on Muslims as a group of people and in effect on those individuals who are part of it. Then it is an issue of how the ‘attack’ is framed. If it is violent – such as burning the Quran – does it not seek to incite hated against those who believe it embodies their faith and therefore their very being?
      This is why the US constitution sought to separate the judiciary and the interpretation of the constitution from the executive branch of the state. You have competing freedoms – freedom of belief (and worship) and freedom to criticise beliefs. The way you do it is the key thing – and this can only be done AFTER the fact. However, if there is clear proof of a conspiracy to demonise a group BECAUSE of their views, surely this has to be condemned?
      And all of these issues are time and socially located. It becomes toxic when ‘beliefs’ are shared by a group of people who are seen as a threat to another group of people or to ‘the state’. This is why the debates about freedom never go away and are constantly hijacked by people who have another agenda. Intervening in other countries in the name of ‘universal’ freedoms is something that imperialists have always done – the ‘moral’ and ‘liberal’ justification for war and plunder. The USA does this WHENEVER it confronts an enemy. It is part of the propaganda war to consolidate support for its intervention.
      My view is the classic liberal one on this. People shold be allowed to believe and do what they want – UNLESS it causes harm to others. (How you define ‘harm’ then becomes the issue).

      1. Religious people are always complaining of being victims of oppression by more powerful groups – who are often other religious groups that temporarily gain dominance in a society. So even when malicious, far-right activists burn religious books to show their hatred and contempt for Muslims (and it usually seems to be the Quran; this case of the Bible and the Torah was rare), we need to remember how Muslims, like most other religious zealots, behave towards members of other faiths and atheists when Islam is the state religion. In the USA, it’s the right-wing evangelical Christians who are trying to turn their society into a theocracy. In India, it’s Hindus.

    3. To be quite honest I am truly convinced that religion is a scourge on mankind and the sooner it becomes history the better.
      Mankind will never be free while this delusional nonsense continues!

      1. I agree. I will support any faith based organization as long as they provide scientific proof there their God(s) exist. Until they do they are nothing but frauds, run by confidence tricksters, i.e. crooks. This matters because they draw in money, profit, but in most locations pay no taxes.

        I accept that some of these organizations do much good, but there are just as many if not more that don’t. But people don’t need to claim to belong to some faith group to do good, so be good, kind and generous away from fake religions. Atheists do good, are kind and generous, and we pay taxes too. Taxes that our government doles out to religions cults both at home and abroad. Are you listening Israel?

    4. so the religous people are offended if we burn a bible/Koran/torrah and yet they for example picket events like pride causing distress to those partisapating it double standads either dont burn the books and dont picket pride or keep picketing pride and those that want to can burn whatever books they like!

    5. I abhor what the Israelis are doing in Palestine but burning knowledge can never be a successful strategy. Heinrich Heine observed that wherever books are burned, people are burned, too, in the end. His words turned out to be prophetic, as his own books would be burnt by the Nazis during the 1930s.

    6. The “West” so strongly believes in Freedom of Speech I cannot watch RT or PressTV.

      Nuff sed.

      Mainstream religious people usually regard religion as some sporting competition, “Who is winning”.

      No Monotheistic religion would ever be mistaken for tolerant.

      I’ll take the fourth position. A pox on ALL of their houses.

      There is no “easy solution” here. The moral path is to protect the weakest party. AS we have seen from certain recent anti-racist legislation MISUSE however, the “weakest party” is also open to interpretation, and can change over time, and have different levels within the group itself.

      Essentially, the only real solution is for everyone to become polytheistic Pagan and tolerant.

      I wash my hands until that time.

      “Wake me up, when September ends…”… or more accurately, Rome, the Black Iron Prison.

    7. I detest the Barbarism Netanyahu and his followers are unleashing on the Palestinian People and the way they go about Stealing their homes and Land this reminds Me of a Terrible awful time in Human History it escapes me for the moment as I am aged and my memory plays tricks on me but it will come to me. Burning Books on any subject is a crime an act of Terror I wonder if any of the Protesters who are going to carry out this Despicable Act remember reading about The Night of 9th November 1938 in Nazi Germany Kristallnacht the prelude to the Nazis burning Books and eventually the Greatest Criminal Act in Human History The Holocaust. Burning Literature is Barbaric no matter the subject matter. I will finish by stating it is not only Netanyahu and His Zionists to Blame for the Ethnic Cleansing taking place in Palestine it is also The Craven Cowardly Western Leaders to BLAME they do not dare upset or annoy the Purveyors of WEALTH burning books of any text will not stop The Zionist Jew and Honestly I have no idea What would Stop their illegal Invasion of Palestine and the West Bank if a Western LEADER Can Tell Me What’s Different From The Zionist Jews War on Palestine and Russias War on Ukraine I would be Interested to hear it.

    8. The writer makes an interesting point but her lack of knowledge regarding rights to free speech in Sweden makes her use of it as the place to start her discussion unfortunate. Sweden has one of the most extensive FOS policies in the world. It provides money to fund minority positions not only in general elections but all year round. As the writer says in her discussion you can have a demonstration by going to the police station telling them when and where but do not have to tell them much else. They do not give you permission it is your right they mere provide support. If you wish to burn a book you can do it but most Swedes will ignore you or call you an idiot. Freedom of speech does not mean the freedom from criticism and that includes religions. If a faith cannot stand up to the riggers of FOS the it is not much of a faith is it?

    9. Burning books? No, that is just craziness and adds to the carbon infested atmosphere. I have no time at all for organised religions either and as for the argument about identity ? About as hollow an argument as I`ve ever heard . Either you accept science and evolution and the fact we are animals and basically all the same as humans, or, you are living in a fantasy that may harm others and has done already for countless years. Time is running out for humanity and as yet no-one has come back from death to tell us how wonderful heaven or Nirvana is, or whatever else the uneducated think comes after life. Science has the only keys to save humanity from self destruction, the rest is dangerous nonsense.

    10. “What they don’t realise, however, is that for people of faith, degradation of their religion and its associated symbols goes far beyond mere ‘offence’”.

      Their blind faith, or more accurately a determination to not understand there are no Gods, goes beyond offense to people find their idiocy contemptible. Every religion evolved from primitive people that couldn’t comprehend how thing work. The weather, reproduction, the sun. moon and stars, and a myriad other things. Things we now understand because of science. said primitive myths have today evolved into confidence trickery. In other words, frauds.

      Religious leaders are guilty of practicing fraud to garner wealth, influence and power. Un-elected power. Some are terrorists as they force people to behave the way the leadership wants. Some are terrorists as they effectively force the local citizenry to join organizations that do not truly represent them. Some are child predators. Many more are spouse abusers.

      Every religions document, icon, structure and ‘relic’ needs to be destroyed. Burn them all.

    11. As Marx stated ‘the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class’. Hatred against Islam & Muslims exists and is promoted not because of the ignorant hatreds of a few individual bigots or atheists, but because it serves a political purpose. Whether it is the starvation of the Irish, the extermination of Native Americans, the enslavement of Black Africans or the genocide of Palestinians or Iraqis, a justification and dehumanisation is provided by attacks on their perceived ‘savagery’, rationality, colour, ethnicities, religion and lack of civilisation – unlike us, because we are so superior.

    12. “Proponents of free speech will say that freedom of speech includes ‘freedom to offend’. ”

      No. Freedom of speech IS freedom to offend. No one needs freedom to say non offensive things. No one is going to stop you saying things that everyone agrees with.

      I find it offensive that the Charlie Hebdo atrocity is described here as a “debacle”, trying to minimise the fact that people were slaughtered for a cartoon, but I am happy for the author to have the right to state that view.

      People in these comments who are trying to equate burning a Koran with the Nazi book burnings are missing the vital fact that the Nazi’s were trying to destroy or limit access to knowledge, as they were tying to burn all copies of certain books and make them unavailable. The Koran burners are obviously not thinking that by burning a single one of the billions of them in circulation, they will be in any way limiting anyone access to this text.

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