The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has recently passed a motion condemning the Quran burning in Sweden as a violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief. The motion, which was adopted by a vote of 28 in favor, 12 against and 7 abstentions, urged all states to take measures to prevent and combat intolerance, discrimination and violence based on religion or belief, and to promote interreligious dialogue and mutual respect.
Quran Burning in Sweden is Allowed by Court
On 28 June 2023, a 37-year-old Iraqi refugee, who wanted the Quran banned, tore out pages, wiped them on his shoe and set some of them on fire outside Stockholm’s central mosque during Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest days for Muslims.
The event was allowed by a Swedish court, which said it did not pose a security risk and was protected by freedom of expression. The Swedish government condemned the Islamophobic act, but said it could not interfere with the judicial decision.
The act sparked protests and riots across Sweden, especially in cities and towns with large Muslim populations. At least 40 people were injured, several police cars and buses were set on fire, and stones and other objects were thrown at officers.
There were strong reactions from other countries, especially in the Muslim world. Morocco recalled its ambassador to Sweden indefinitely, while Turkey blocked Sweden’s bid to join NATO. Several Muslim leaders and organizations denounced the act as an insult to Islam and a violation of human rights¹.
The Quran burning in Sweden was part of a planned “tour” of Sweden by Rasmus Paludan, the leader of the anti-immigration and anti-Islam group Stram Kurs (Hard Line). Paludan is a Danish-Swedish politician who has made a name for himself by burning Qurans in Denmark and other countries. He said he wanted to protest the Swedish government’s failure to integrate immigrants and defend freedom of speech.
Western Nations Claim its Freedom of Expression
The motion was proposed by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which expressed its deep concern over the incidents of Quran burning in Sweden by far-right groups and individuals. The OIC argued that such acts amount to incitement to hatred and violence against Muslims, and constitute a serious threat to peace and security. The OIC also called for the protection of the rights and dignity of Muslims and other religious minorities in Sweden and elsewhere.
However, several western countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Sweden itself, oppose the motion. They said that it conflicted their position on the “freedom of expression and opinion”. While claiming to condemn any form of hatred or violence against any religious group, they refused to support a motion that would restrict the exercise of offensive and provocative free speech. They also expressed their concern over the potential misuse of the motion to justify blasphemy laws or other forms of repression against dissenting voices.
Majority of the World Welcomes the Resolution
The motion was supported by a majority of African, Asian and Latin American countries, agreeing that Quran burning in Sweden was an unacceptable form of disrespect and provocation against Muslims.
Here all the countries that voted YES to UN motion: Algeria; Argentina; Bangladesh; Bolivia; Cameroon; China; Cuba; Eritrea; Gabon; Gambia; India; Ivory Coast; Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; Malawi; Malaysia; Maldives; Morocco; Pakistan; Qatar; Senegal; Somalia; South Africa; Sudan; Ukraine; UAE; Uzbekistan; Vietnam.
While the resolution is not legally binding, these countries have stressed the need to respect the diversity of religions and beliefs, and to foster a culture of tolerance and coexistence among different communities. They also highlighted the role of education and awareness-raising in preventing and combating religious intolerance and discrimination.
Additionally, several Muslim organizations and human rights groups praised the UNHRC for taking a stand against Islamophobia and hate speech. They urged all states to implement the motion’s recommendations and to ensure that the rights of all religious groups are protected and respected. They also called for more dialogue and cooperation among different faiths and cultures to promote mutual understanding and harmony.
Those Who Criticize the UN Motion
These countries voted NO to review their laws that hinder the efforts to prevent and punish acts and promotion of religious hatred: Belgium; Costa Rica; Czech Republic; Finland; France; Germany; Lithuania; Luxembourg; Montenegro; Romania; UK; US. Whereas, the countries that refrained from voting anyway are: Benin; Chile; Georgia; Honduras; Mexico; Nepal; Paraguay.
The motion was also criticized by some secular and liberal groups, which denounced the UNHRC for undermining freedom of speech and expression. They warned that the motion could be used to silence critics or dissenters of Islam or any other religion, and to stifle debate and discussion on important issues. They also questioned the credibility and legitimacy of the UNHRC, which has been accused of being biased and politicized in favor of certain countries or agendas.
Like a Ritual
Sweden is the hub of desecration of the Muslim’s Holy Book alongside Denmark. The history has recorded series of incidents involving far-right activist groups setting fire to copies of the Quran in public places, often during Muslim holidays or anti-NATO protests. The events sparked riots, clashes, condemnations and diplomatic tensions between Sweden and other countries.
One member of Stram Kurs burnt a copy of the Quran in Malmo in August 2020, triggering violent unrest and vandalism. In April 2022, the leader Rasmus Paludan, burned a copy of the Quran in Linkoping, a neighborhood with a large Muslim population, under police protection. It sparked violent protest across the country as Paludan announced to hold another event of Quran burning in Sweden.
Similarly, in Denmark, it is also legal to desecrate the Quran. The Holy Book is burned regularly on significant Muslim events. Other forms of desecration include wrapping it in bacon and throwing it on the ground. Paludan did this in 2019 in Copenhagen and was later banned from entering Sweden for 2 years after attempting to repeat the stunt there. Next year, he burned another Quran in Denmark during a rally in Aarhus, sparking violent clashes between his supporters and counter-protesters. He was later sentenced to 3 months in prison for racism and incitement to violence.
In 2021, Paludan received permission from police to stage a protest outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm where he burned the Quran. Days later, Edwin Wagensveld, Dutch leader of the far-right Pegida movement in the Netherlands, tore pages out of a copy of the Quran near the Dutch parliament and stomped on them.
Recently in Januray, the far-right anti-Muslim group Patrioterne Gar Live displayed Islamophobic banners and desecrated the Quran and the Turkish flag in front of the Turkish Embassy in Copenhagen. The far-right group also broadcast it live on their Facebook page.