Burning of the Koran: Should Sweden Limit Its Absolute Freedom of Speech

The actions of far-right politician Rasmus Paludan anger many in the Muslim world, and raise the question: is it time for Sweden to restrict the freedom to say and do anything you want in the public arena?

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/2023-02-06/ty-article-opinion/.premium/burning-the-koran-and-the-torah-challenges-swedens-absolute-freedom-of-speech/00000186-2666-d442-a18f-afef5bac0000

Officially, Rasmus Paludan is the leader of a far-right party active in Sweden and Denmark, but to call him a “leader” is misleading. Paludan, a 41-year-old lawyer with dual Swedish and Danish citizenship, has hardly any supporters – at least not in Sweden. Still, he's very famous there because of an unusual political tactic he developed: Burning the Koran.

A handful of supporters burned the Koran in Malmö in southern Sweden in 2020, and since then Paludan has repeated the act a number of times. In April 2022, he achieved exactly what he wanted. In response to his one-man show in a number of Swedish cities, criminal elements took advantage of the opportunity and set off riots, burned cars and attacked police. They gave Paludan and his pyromaniacal hobby impressive impact.

In January, Paludan returned to Sweden after he received a permit to burn a Koran in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm. Not that he needed it, but this time he found a geopolitical excuse for his demonstration. For many months, Turkey has been using its power to prevent Sweden from joining NATO, supposedly because Sweden supports “Kurdish terrorists.”

Paludan exploited Sweden's justified anger and planned to score some points – or at the very least attract attention as another point of tension between the two countries. And that's what happened: Turkey and Muslims around the world aimed their arrows to the north. Boycotts were imposed on Swedish companies, protests were held in Muslim countries and Sweden’s entry into NATO looks more distant than ever. All this happened even though the vast majority of Swedes have reservations about Paludan, if they're not totally disgusted by him and his provocations.

So why have the Swedish authorities let Paludan harm their political interests and damage the social fabric? Because freedom of speech is absolute in Sweden. Some say that it's almost sacred and that civil rights such as freedom of speech and the right to protest and form unions have become in many ways the replacement for religion in one of the most secular societies in the world.

In Sweden, events like neo-Nazi marches and Koran burnings can cause riots and split society by stirring up emotions. This is how neo-Nazi movements can hold marches next to synagogues on Yom Kippur, supporters of dictators from around the world can demonstrate, and a person like Rasmus Paludan – who has almost no means in addition to his minuscule support – can undermine Sweden's national interests, cause riots and split society by stirring up emotions.

But the Swedes have another option. In recent years, some have argued that now is the time to restrict, if just a little, the freedom to say and do anything you want in the public arena. Despite the country's tranquil image, a prime minister and a foreign minister have been murdered in Sweden, which also has neo-Nazi movements, volunteers for the Islamic State, and harsh problems of integration and political violence – both above and below the surface.

The situation may still be better than in most countries, but Sweden is definitely not immune to the religious wars, social instability and political extremism spreading throughout the world in the third decade of the 21st century. Unsurprisingly, among those who understand the severity of the situation are Sweden's Jewish organizations. The Jewish community council there and the group Amanah, which promotes Jewish-Muslim dialogue, released a statement immediately after the Koran burning, saying: “Racists and extremists are once again allowed to burn the Koran, abusing democracy and freedom of speech to normalize hatred against one of Sweden’s religious minorities.”

Amanah mentions the “tragic history of Europe” and quotes Heinrich Heine’s famous words: “Those who burn books will in the end burn people.” In a democratic society, every person has the right to feel safe and respected, Amanah said, expressing its support for Sweden's Muslim minority and making clear that every act of discrimination and hate is unacceptable.

Proof of the need for this statement arrived quickly. In two separate cases late last month, Swedes of Egyptian origin tried to prove the “Swedish hypocrisy” by burning a Torah – in one case in front of the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm. It seems they thought that if they didn't receive a permit it would be proof of discrimination against Muslims. If they did receive one, it would add more fuel to the fire of hateful anger.

Even though the Israeli Foreign Ministry tried to take credit for intervening with the Swedes and preventing the burning of the Torah, it was others who prevented – or at least postponed – the incident. It was the Muslim community in Sweden, including people who cooperate with the Jewish community, who made the right calls and applied the right pressure to prevent the burning – at least for now.

True, dialogue alone won't solve the political, cultural and social problems today in Sweden – and outside it. Legislation, education, investment and sometimes even a little force are needed too. But dialogue is necessary; only it can set both limits and the rules of the game, because in the real world it's impossible to have rights without restrictions – and no one is better suited than Muslims and Jews to take responsibility together to set these limits.

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David Stavrou דיויד סטברו

עיתונאי ישראלי המתגורר בשוודיה Stockholm based Israeli journalist

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