Salwan Momika, an Iraqi refugee of Christian origin but who now identifies as an atheist, staged a demonstration outside the grand mosque in Stockholm on 28 June. He tore out some pages from a copy of the Koran, placed a strip of bacon on them, stamped on the holy book and set it on fire. He also called for the Koran to be banned in Sweden.
One of Sweden’s neighbours has also recently had a similar experience. Danske Patrioter, a far-right group in Denmark, burned a copy of the Koran outside the Iraqi embassy in Copenhagen.
Not long afterwards Ahmad Alush, a Muslim activist and Swedish citizen threatened to burn a Hebrew Bible outside the Israeli embassy in Stockholm. But when he staged his demonstration he made it clear he had no such intention. Instead he spoke out against the burning of sacred books.
Not surprisingly the Israeli government protested against the threat to burn holy texts. The Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, said he was against the burning of holy books including the Koran. He called for a culture of mutual respect instead.
However, the reaction of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an intergovernmental organisation, went much further. Writing for the website Focus on Western Islamism, Soeren Kern reported that the foreign ministers of the 57 countries represented at the OIC called for an international blasphemy law to prevent any further Koran burnings. This was on the grounds that they were acts of aggression and designed to generate social discord.
It seems Denmark in particular is prepared to consider such a law which caused an outcry amongst certain free speech advocates such as Brendan O’Neill on Spiked. He argued that the OIC will try to use outrage over Koran burnings to lever political advantage in unrelated political matters. He also maintained that demands will not stop at the prevention of Koran burnings. In his view it will go on to try to enforce even more far-reaching limitations on free speech.
Banning the burning of books simply because they contain sacred text would be unjust as it would afford those with religious sensibilities protections not granted to secular people (it is equally wrong to burn the Koran or Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses). Also attempts by Middle Eastern governments to exploit Koran burnings for political advantage should of course be resisted. However, as pointed out earlier, Salwan Momika did call for the Koran to be banned from Sweden, an act contrary to free speech, so he can hardly be characterised as a free speech champion.
Also it is disappointing that none of those raising concerns about the activities of the OIC discussed at any length the threat of violence often implicit in the burning of books. This violence can generate counterviolence. For example. the burning of the Koran probably increases the risk of terrorism. To be fair O’Neill said he was uncomfortable with any book being burnt. He added that burning books is never good but this is not really adequate.
The printed word is fundamental to many cultures. Many would maintain that it finds its highest form of expression in the form of the book, religious or secular. Burning a book is usually a violent attack on the culture those burning the book think it represents. One cannot really argue that the burning of books by the Nazis can be regarded as somehow irrelevant to their hatred and persecution of Jews. That is any more than anyone can reasonably argue that the burning of The Satanic Verses was not really an attack on western culture. Or that the burning of JK Rowling’s books was not an attack on the author herself.
In fact those involved in the publishing of The Satanic Verses were attacked and even murdered. Given the unhinged nature of the hatred expressed towards Rowling, one has to imagine those burning books would perpetrate violence against her if they could. She has certainly suffered many threat of murder and rape. One cannot therefore just shrug one’s shoulders and adopt a relaxed attitude to this trend.
If the burning of books is not to be made illegal, proactive measures should be taken. These should make it clear to activists that burning books is often counter-productive. JK Rowling provided a good example when Donald Trump supporters and trans-activists burned her books. Ridicule might discourage the more performative protester from burning a book again. It might also be an effective self-defence mechanism for authors. But it might have even more bite if it were combined with a sort of ostracism by other organisations involved in protest.
If one believed that those involved in burning books were susceptible to a reasoned approach, one could point out that burning books tends to alienate people. If anything it helps bring about the opposite of what they are trying to achieve (as the saying goes, it is not what you do but the way that you do it, that is what gets results). Interestingly a 6 July opinion poll indicated that 53% of Swedes support a ban on burning the Koran. This is a marked contrast to a February opinion poll showing that only 32% were in favour of such a ban. That is the exact opposite of what Salwan Momika would wish.
Burning The Satanic Verses probably helped turn some people against Islam. It made them unsympathetic to the concerns of Muslims when the Koran was burned. That is people may well have thought that Muslims were merely getting a dose of their own medicine. This is of course an extremely unhelpful attitude. It is not one with which we should sympathise but it is sadly true to human nature.
The increased risk of terrorism cannot really decide policy on this matter as once an inch is given to such people they will take a mile. President Herzog’s response is statesmanlike in comparison with the OIC. However, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the person who emerge with the greatest credit is Ahmad Alush. That is because he did not follow through his threat to burn the Hebrew Bible but instead condemned the burning of books.
Guy Whitehouse is a member of the Academy of Ideas and the Free Speech Union. His views do not necessarily reflect those of those organisations.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.