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On Sweden’s extreme provocation

As 1.8 billion Muslims, nearly a quarter of the world’s total population, celebrated this year’s Eid al-Adha last Wednesday marking the end of the important…

As 1.8 billion Muslims, nearly a quarter of the world’s total population, celebrated this year’s Eid al-Adha last Wednesday marking the end of the important and annual Hajj Pilgrimage, an act of no mean provocation to them was taking place in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.

There, two men, one of them, a 37-year-old Iraqi refugee living in Sweden, Salwan Momika, had torn up pages from the Holy Qur’an, wiped them on his shoe before setting some of them on fire near a mosque in a senseless act of extreme provocation that the Swedish authorities quite wrongly and recklessly consider a “protest”, a “demonstration”, and an “expression of free speech”. The provocative incident was watched by a crowd of about 200 people, local media reported, including some in a counter-protest against Momika’s action.

Wednesday’s incident makes it the second time in less than six months that portions of the Qur’an would be set ablaze in Sweden, due to, we must say, its legal and social toleration of what millions of Muslims across the world would regard not as free speech but hate speech.

Earlier in late January this year, a Danish far-right politician Rasmus Paludan, who also has Swedish citizenship, had given an hour-long speech against Islam and immigration before setting fire to a copy of the Qur’an, quite provocatively right in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm, a country which, in a very different political context, opposes Sweden’s ambition to become a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO.

The latest incident, like in January, has been widely condemned by many Muslim or Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Malaysia, among others, as well as by the United States and the United Nations. In Baghdad, on Thursday, hundreds of Iraqis protested in front of the Swedish Embassy, holding the Qur’an, chanting pro-Islamic songs and waving approving flags, including one which read, in English, “The Qur’an is our way of life”.

Later, authorities in Baghdad summoned the Swedish ambassador to Iraq, and slammed the act as “irresponsible”, adding that “these irresponsible actions, in direct conflict with the values of respect for diversity and the beliefs of others, are unequivocally condemned”. Morocco went a step further by recalling its ambassador in Stockholm, even as it issued a “strong condemnation of this attack and its rejection of this unacceptable act”.

Also, while describing the act as a “desecration” of Islam’s Holy Book that was “provocative, ill-considered and unacceptable”, Iran noted that “the Swedish government is expected to seriously consider the principle of responsibility and accountability in this regard, while preventing the repetition of insulting the holy sanctities”.

Daily Trust joins all well-meaning people around the world in condemning this most provocative of acts of Islamophobia and incitement. Equally important, we find it appalling and provocative that the Swedish government would not only permit Momika’s blasphemous act but would in fact provide him with security as he carried out the act right near a mosque and on one of Islam’s holiest days, all in the name of ‘freedom’.

In last week’s incident, Swedish police had first denied permit to Salwan Momika to stage his “protest” on grounds of security, but an appeal court had ruled that banning it would impinge on the “right to freedom of speech”. We take strong exception to this peculiarly of Swedish interpretation of freedom of speech, and urge the Swedish government to reconsider it for the future.

In an age in which personal and collective identities have become deeply intertwined with the very notions of fundamental human rights, the Swedish authorities must know that an out and out version of “free expression” is not only no longer possible, but directly threatens peaceful co-existence among peoples of different races, ethnicities, genders, and faiths. In an increasingly multicultural and deeply globalized world, what is viewed as “free speech” in one culture can quite easily be deemed as profoundly offensive in another.

As a UN body observed in its strong statement, “the act of Quran-burning amounts to an expression of hatred towards Muslims”, that is, hate speech, which the UN defines as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor”.

Moreover, the U.S government is right by observing that the desecration of the Qur’an will create “an environment of fear that will impact the ability of Muslims and members of other religious minority groups from freely exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief in Sweden”. Sweden can only exacerbate a sense of exclusion and fear felt by its own minority Muslim population if it continues to allow extremist elements of other faiths to desecrate the Qur’an every now and then.

Finally, even as we condemn this act and call the Swedish government to order for expressly allowing it on the basis of a warped and short-sighted understanding of freedom of expression, we are encouraged by the fact that the incidence has not resulted in any form of violence against any persons anywhere. That non-violent and law-abiding approach, we believe, is a positive lesson for us here in Nigeria in dealing with such matters.

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