Exploring the boundaries of ‘Freedom of Expression’

quran burning
Scores of angry protesters burn Swedish flags after Friday prayers outside Mohammad al-Amin Mosque to denounce the recent desecration of Islam’s holy book by far-right activists in Sweden in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. HASSAN AMMAR / AP

Approximately 6 billion people, constituting about 85% of the global population, associate themselves with a religious belief. Take a moment to ponder over the consequences if people start burning each other’s sacred texts or insulting religious symbols and figures in the name of freedom of expression. In such a scenario, can you envision a peaceful world? Following the burning of the Quran, the Swedish authorities have also endorsed burning the Bible and Torah, which has once again highlighted the heated debate about the limits of freedom of expression and the need to recognize religious sensitivities and protect religious sentiments.

Freedom of expression is protected as a fundamental human right (Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). However, like any other right, it is not absolute. There is no denying the fact that everyone has the right to criticize, reject, and oppose a religious belief. However, mocking and insulting a religion or a person’s religious beliefs by burning sacred text, or insulting religious figures is in itself an abuse of the fundamental right to freedom of expression, and clearly shows that the right to freedom of expression is in fact misunderstood. Considering the fact, an amendment was made to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which emphasizes that freedom of expression may be restricted under certain conditions, such as “(a) for respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.” Since incidents such as the Quran burning hurt the feelings of a particular religious community, putting them under extreme psychological distress and inciting the public to hate and violence, they pose a serious threat to public order, mental health and morals. Hence, sanctioning of the burning of sacred scriptures at public gatherings by the Swedish authorities has no justification.

The need is to understand that the burning of holy texts is not mere an expression of one’s opinion. Such acts transcend all boundaries as they deliberately target a religion and aim to cause offense rather than contribute to a meaningful exchange of ideas. It is an act of hatred and bigotry that cannot be sanctioned by the state. How can the burning of scripture that deeply offends the feelings of a religious community be justified or protected in the name of freedom of expression? Ignoring religious sensitivities highlights the insensitivity and callousness of those who advocate unrestricted freedom of expression. It may arise from a lack of understanding towards the emotions associated with having a religious faith and experiencing offenses directed towards sacred texts or revered figures. Imagine for a moment how it would feel if someone publicly insulted your parents, siblings, or spouse? People belonging to religious beliefs experience similar emotions following incidents of desecration of holy texts or personalities. Likewise, the burning of the Quran in Sweden has deeply hurt the feelings of the global Muslim community. Similar sentiments were expressed by the Israeli community shortly after the Swedish authorities sanctioned the burning of the Torah and Bible. Fortunately, the Muslim guy, who had got permission to burn a Torah and a Bible in front of the Israeli embassy in Sweden, recanted his decision saying that he never wanted to burn any holy books but his sole intention was to protest against the recent burning of the Quran.

The need is to understand that such kinds of incidents are not simply the expression of someone’s opinion, but these acts stem from a couple of factors. It may arise due to ignorance, prejudice, or a misguided attempt to express discontent. In some cases, it may be an act of deliberate provocation to incite unrest or amplify existing tensions. What is the point of burning holy texts at public gatherings in the media spotlight? Isn’t it a desperate attempt to get media attention? Political factors may also play a role in it. Whenever the Quran burning incidents take place in Sweden, they pose a potential threat to Sweden’s bid to join NATO, since Turkey, as a Muslim state, takes a firm stance on using its veto power to oppose Sweden’s NATO membership. According to the reports from Swedish media, the Quran burning incident in 2022 was funded by a journalist with ties to Moscow media. So, it’s not so easy to label such blasphemous protests as ‘free speech,’ but rather as manipulations orchestrated by hate mongers and opportunists.

Regardless of the reasons, the consequences of burning holy scriptures under the protection of state institutions are profound and far-reaching. They cause deep emotional distress and shock to the religious communities concerned, affecting their sense of belonging to the society and increasing social division. Such incidents can trigger the cycle of revenge, and lead to more similar episodes. Since hate breeds hate, these acts escalate tensions, protests, and even violence. They undermine the very foundation of trust and respect that is essential to fostering harmonious coexistence in multicultural societies. No sane individual can support an action that disturbs the very essence of a peaceful society.

Freedom of expression is undoubtedly a fundamental right; however, it is imperative to recognize its limitations and distinguish it from hate speech. Any act that hurts the feelings of a religious community, thereby undermining respect and tolerance, deserves condemnation both as hate speech and as a potential threat to society. Instead of hiding behind the pretext of freedom of expression, such actions should be recognized as a real threat to the well-being of society.

It is imperative to acknowledge and respect religious sensitivities. The balance lies in treating religion and its adherents with respect while allowing for critical dialogue and debate. Upholding freedom of expression is vital, but it should go hand in hand with promoting social harmony and empathy. Building a society that embraces diversity, encourages dialogue, and respects each individual is fundamental to preventing such incidents and cultivating harmony between diverse communities. Through collaborative efforts, societies can strive for more inclusive and harmonious coexistence, where freedom of expression is upheld while religious sentiments are duly recognized and respected.

Dr. Nazia Nazar is based in Finland. She can be reached at [email protected]

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