Washington, D.C. | www.mpac.org | January 27, 2023 — The recent burning of the Quran in Sweden has brought into the mainstream questions around freedom of expression, the continued rise of right-wing ideologies across the globe, and double standards in public discourse.
Freedom of speech, enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution, allows Americans to express themselves without prohibition or interference from the government. The United States has one of the most robust understandings of freedom of speech. However, contrary to popular belief, free speech is never absolute. Even in the United States, it is illegal to yell “fire” in a crowded theater if there is no fire. Even though virtually every other developed Western country embraces freedom of speech, most have laws against hate speech.
Recently, a far-right Swedish politician held a Quran-burning outside the Turkish Embassy. A key policy priority for the politician in question: the banning of Muslim immigration to the country and the deportation of Muslims already living in Sweden. The response from the Swedish government has been meek, stressing free speech as opposed to expressing outrage over the incident itself. We find this response to be hypocritical given the existence of hate speech laws, including laws against Holocaust denial, in Sweden. The burning of the Quran is a direct message to the Muslims of Sweden. As such, it should be seen as an act of hate meant to intimidate an entire minority group, and should be met with the same derision and outrage as attacks on any other minority group.
Over the past decade we have witnessed the rise in far right-wing ultra-nationalist groups which seek to spread racist and supremacist ideologies. The proliferation of hate speech emboldens and empowers these groups. Society must take a stand against such hate speech, and organizations and governments alike should be consistent in denouncing hate speech when it occurs– regardless of which group it targets.
We at the Muslim Public Affairs Council believe in the consistent application of any law or cultural norm regulating hate speech, in the U.S. and abroad. We therefore call on the Swedish government to more forcefully condemn the recent Quran-burning, to stand in solidarity with the beleaguered Muslim community in Sweden, and to reassess the fairness and equal application of hate speech laws.
Finally, we remind the people of Europe about the long history of book burning, especially of religious books. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they held burnings of Jewish books, including of the Talmud, with Sweden morally culpable as a cooperator and collaborator with the Nazi regime. Today, hatred against Muslim and Arab populations threatens to return Europe back to the days of fascism and ethno-nationalism, while creating opportunity for similar ideologies to further spread– throughout the U.S. and the world.
With this threat looming before us, we ask people of good conscience to deeply consider the familiar adage:
“Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”