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Is Europe's pseudo-religious 'freedom of expression' excuse just a pretext for provocation?

Security measures taken outside the Swedish Consulate General in Istanbul after the burning of a copy of Quran by Swedish-Danish far-right politician Rasmus Paludan in Stockholm on January 22, 2023, Turkiye. [Elif Öztürk Özgöncü - Anadolu Agency]
Security measures taken outside the Swedish Consulate General in Istanbul after the burning of a copy of Quran by Swedish-Danish far-right politician Rasmus Paludan in Stockholm on January 22, 2023, Turkiye. [Elif Öztürk Özgöncü - Anadolu Agency]

Rasmus Paludan, the leader of the Danish far-right Stram Kurs (Hard Line) party, burnt a copy of the Qur'an during a demonstration in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm at the weekend. Despite Turkish foreign office staff warning their Swedish counterparts about Paludan's protest, it was held to be within the scope of freedom of expression and was allowed to go ahead. This cheap stunt was condemned promptly by officials from many states, including Turkiye, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar.

"The burning of the Holy Qur'an in Stockholm is a clear hate crime against humanity," tweeted Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin. "We vehemently condemn this. Allowing this action despite all our warnings is encouraging hate crimes and Islamophobia. The attack on sacred values is not freedom but modern barbarism." Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar announced the cancellation of the meeting in Ankara due to be held next week with his Swedish counterpart.

Sweden, which needs Ankara's approval for its bid to join NATO, has engaged recently in counterproductive acts that have angered the Turkish public about the membership process. Last week, supporters of the YPG/PKK terrorist organisation hanged Turkish President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan's effigy in Stockholm.

Paludan has a long track record of Islamophobic acts. As well as a series of hate crimes, including burning copies of the Qur'an, he is also responsible for riots where vehicles were set on fire, and many police officers and civilians were injured. The Danish far-right extremist, who was disbarred from the legal profession for three years, had his driving licence confiscated for a year and was sentenced to a month in prison in 2020. He boasted about his action in his latest Instagram post.

"Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of democracy," tweeted the Swedish prime minister. "But what is legal is not necessarily appropriate. Burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act. I want to express my sympathy for all Muslims who are offended by what has happened in Stockholm today."

READ: Using NATO membership as leverage, Turkiye is giving the EU a taste of its own medicine

People stage a protest against the burning of the Quran in Sweden on January 22, 2023 in Rafah, Gaza. [Mustafa Hassona - Anadolu Agency]

People stage a protest against the burning of the Quran in Sweden on January 22, 2023 in Rafah, Gaza. [Mustafa Hassona – Anadolu Agency]

This wasn't the first such "deeply disrespectful" act and probably won't be the last. Can it really be held to be within the scope of "freedom of expression", or is that just a pseudo-religious excuse used as a pretext in the West for provocative acts?

This strategy of using concepts such as human rights, freedom of expression and democracy to allow provocation against minorities is prevalent in Western countries. There is an inherent way of reasoning in Western countries which characterise themselves as the playmakers of the rules-based international order that only they will determine how the boundaries of these concepts are drawn.

Take freedom of speech, for example. It is astonishing to evaluate the protest within its scope, given that many scholarly debates about where this freedom begins and ends are full of sophisticated arguments and studies. Furthermore, it is nothing but an effort to strengthen this unsubstantiated claim by connecting the issue directly to democracy. Of course, it is important to express sympathy for the Muslim community in the face of this humiliating act against them and all they hold dear. However, surely the most important thing was not to consider this act within the scope of freedom of expression, but instead to take pre-emptive steps to stop similar acts happening in the future. Sweden has failed to do that.

Moreover, the discursive ease with which state officials frequently use concepts such as human rights, freedom of expression and democracy to dismiss any provocation is baffling. It is the easy way out so that they can limit the political response. Despite an increase in Islamophobia, politicians are inclined to take the issue out of its real framework — hate crime — and take refuge in the so-called "liberal" Western identity. What about the consequences of such crimes? What about the victims? Trying to cover up a hate crime with the freedom of expression mantra is to abandon the responsibility that every government has to ensure that all of the people living and visiting their countries are safe and secure.

It is time to question those who have placed themselves as the guardians of the boundaries of human rights, democracy and freedom of speech in order to suit their political agendas. Freedom of expression is always going to be limited if other people's right to be safe from harm is to be protected. It is now evident that the clichéd use of freedom of speech and democracy is but a fig leaf to cover entrenched Islamophobia.

This issue is too wide-ranging and significant to be limited to two NATO candidates — Finland is also dependent on Turkiye's support — that find it difficult to keep their distance from terror groups. Time will tell if Western democracies are able to minimise the damage of far-right and other racist political groups. The problem with the latter is that they won't stop at abusing Islam and victimising Muslims. Anders Breivik's 2011 massacre of innocents in neighbouring Norway made that very clear.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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