+45 2216 2999 wolfgang@mostert.dk

Quran burning is vandalism

Wolfgang Mostert, wolfgang@mostert.dk, 20. july 2023

“You have written and underlined in the Quran!”  Yasser, a 23-year-old Egyptian friend, was shocked.  Yasser stayed with me for a couple of months to improve his knowledge of energy economics by following my work as a consultant.  The evening often consisted of political and cultural discussions, including religious topics, and to settle a point of contention, I had taken the Quran off the bookshelf.  I had read the Quran to learn more about Muslim beliefs and underlining and commenting helped in the process.  But scribbling in the Quran, the holiest scripture dictated by God to the Prophet Muhammad, is for a Muslim an assault.  So is it for Jews when it comes to the Torah: it is kept in a scroll in the synagogue so that the scripture is untouched during reading.

Sacramental acts are physical acts that desecrate the sacred.  In 2001, the Taliban blew up the 6th-century Bamiyan Buddha statue; ISIS in 2015 Baal Shamin Temple in Palmyra from the 1st century; Denmark and other countries that have abolished the blasphemy clause in their criminal legislation allow public burning of the Quran, a holy scripture from the 7th century.  The Taliban and ISIS perform desecration because they consider the holy sites of other religions to be blasphemous, Denmark because freedom of speech is interpreted as including acts of sacrilege.

Section 140 of the Penal Code covering blasphemy – “Whoever publicly mocks or insults the beliefs or worship of any legally existing religious community in this country shall be punished with a fine or imprisonment for up to 4 months” – was abolished by the Danish Parliament in 2017.  Pakistan’s and a few other Muslim countries’ brutal use of blasphemy laws gives the concept a disgusting association, and the development of Danish society had moved away from the wording of the text.  It could be interpreted as meaning that religious satire was not allowed.  Films and television programs with Christian religious satire and artists’ unconventional versions of the Christian cross or of the figure of Jesus had become so common that they could no longer provoke, and the authorities had throughout the lifetime of the clause been reluctant to use it. 17 opened cases, including one involving a Bible burning, did not lead to indictments.  Of four indictments, two led to convictions (1938 and 1946), one to acquittal (1972). The last case against a man who had burned a Quran in his garden and posted a video of the incident on Facebook was closed before the sentencing because the blasphemy clause was abolished (2017).

Before the repeal of the clause one issue in particular was discussed: the majority of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims take their religion seriously and will not accept that non-Muslims deliberately violate it by breaking key Muslim taboos.  The 2005 Mohammed-cartoon crisis was not forgotten. But proponents argued that abolishing the clause would not lead to major consequences.

Burnings of the Quran are carried out in three ways.  Anonymous actions, for example, throwing a burnt Quran in front of a mosque from a passing car; video footage of burnings in a private place posted online; advertised Quran burnings in public places specifically related to Muslim communities: for example, a mosque, a residential neighborhood with a high Muslim immigrant population, or the embassy of a Muslim country.

Quran burnings in public places that have taken place in Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden are particularly problematic for several reasons. The prior police permit, which is mandatory for demonstrations in public places and is granted under the country’s laws on freedom of expression, makes the act sanctioned by the authorities.  Although the government publicly denounces the act, Muslim activists can twist the permit propagandistically into meaning government approval.

Media coverage of the announced action requires counter-protesters willing to gather at the place of the act.  The offender would be publicly humiliated if no one showed up except the offender’s most fanatical supporters. The vast majority of Muslims living near the crime scene have more important tasks than doing the offender the favor of coming to the scene.  But there are confused souls who are prepared to kill violators to defend the honor of religion.  More common are young people, often with criminal backgrounds, who take the opportunity under full media attention to carry out ‘legitimate’ violent acts. .  A third interest group are politicians in Muslim countries who lacking the ability to find solutions to their countries’ socio-economic problems seek popularity as guardians of the religion by mobilizing demonstrations in their homeland against a Quran-burning.

The coincidence of interests between the offender and the ‘offended’ triggers costs for police services that protect the organizer.  Rasmus Paludan’s show business with Quran burnings in Denmark and Sweden has led to him receiving personal protection from the Danish National Police.  Since its inception in 2019 this has cost Danish taxpayers more than DKK 130 million and weakened the security of other citizens because manpower resources spent on Paludan are unavailable for other police work.

Since the end of the 1990s, several Western countries have, as part of their development assistance, financed ‘democracy programs’ to spread ‘Western values’.  Being lectured by former colonial masters about the universality of ‘Western values’ does not arouse undivided enthusiasm among the people and governments of former colonies.  Unsurprisingly, evaluations of ‘democracy programs’ have difficulty in demonstrating impact.  The annual democracy index published by the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) fell in 2021 to its lowest level since the start of the polls in 2006.  The democracy-dialogue is weakened by what the ‘South’ perceives as Western ‘hypocrisy’.

One example is the West’s selective interpretation of ‘freedom of speech’.  In the last ten years, a “culture of non-offense” towards minority groups has spread in Western countries; often referred to as “cancel culture”.  It insists on avoiding: the use of words that may be perceived as offensive; showing up in stereotypical or culturally expropriating party attire; singing songs that may seem exclusionary; as a ‘white’ writer to write books about a ‘non-white’ protagonist; that a syllabus contains texts that students may perceive as violent; etc..  Against all logic, the new norms of behavior do not include religious violations. On the contrary, public debate has elevated desecration to a right which is absolute and which must not be challenged.  . The Swedish Constitutional Court ruled in spring 2023 that an increased risk of terrorist acts against Sweden is not sufficient reason to refuse permission for Quran burnings, as it would violate freedom of expression.  Muslims do not accept this view; Erdogan stated in June 2023: “We will teach the arrogant Western people that it is not freedom of expression to insult the sacred values of Muslims”.

In view of the situation, some politicians propose that Denmark introduces a ban on specified types of desecration. This is rejected by other politicians and commentators, who see the proposal as a knee-jerk reaction to pressure from authoritarian regimes and violent young men in the streets.  The horror scenario is the situation in English cities, where local authorities allow themselves to be manipulated by extremely conservative-authoritarian Muslim forces; an example is Wakefield.  Others believe that a ban on sacrilege is useless, because provocateurs will come up with other offensive acts, such as displaying or drawing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in public.

This leaves the possibility that the police makes the approval of an announced public demonstration conditional on the commitment by the organizer to refrain from carrying out physical acts which are likely to disturb the public order and not essential for spreading the word. This can be done with reference to Section 266 B of the Penal Code (‘racism section’), which makes it a criminal offence to publicly make statements or other communications by which a group of persons is insulted or degraded because of faith, and based on a ‘proportionality assessment’ which concludes that an unconditional approval would require the mobilization of a larger number of police to safeguard the public order.

In February 2023, the Danish Police Intelligence Service (PET) for reasons of security denied Rasmus Paludan permission to burn the Quran in front of either the Turkish embassy or a mosque in Copenhagen. In June, the Bornholm police imposed a number of restrictions on Paludan’s participation in the People’s Meeting because his presence could be a danger both to him and to other participants.

Preventing the burning of the Quran is not a knee-jerk reaction to anti-democratic forces willing to use violence.  It is common sense and an expression of basic courtesy.