Quran burnings assertion of broader bias against immigrants in Europe: Ex-UN rapporteur

Quran burnings assertion of broader bias against immigrants in Europe: Ex-UN rapporteur

There is a ‘strong case’ for prohibition of such acts that ‘serve no possible constructive purpose,’ says Richard Falk

By Rabia Iclal Turan

WASHINGTON (AA) – A recent wave of Quran burnings in Sweden and Denmark is “an assertion of a broader anti-immigrant, anti-non-European right-wing bias that has grown to be quite politically strong,” according to a former UN special rapporteur.

“There’s no legitimate purpose by allowing groups to burn the holy scriptures of another religious faith,” Richard Falk, a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, told Anadolu in a video interview.

“It seems to me to serve … no possible constructive purpose. And I think there is a strong case for (such acts to be) prohibited.”

In recent months, far-right groups have desecrated and burnt several copies of the Quran in Denmark and neighboring Sweden, drawing fierce condemnation from Muslims around the world and calls for measures to stop such acts.

In late July, Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said he was in “close dialogue” with his Danish counterpart Mette Frederiksen, stressing that both countries recognize that “the situation is dangerous and measures are needed to strengthen our resilience.”

While Kristersson has ruled out any sweeping changes to Sweden’s freedom of expression laws, Denmark’s government has said it is “exploring the possibility of intervening in special situations,” but only “within the framework of the constitutionally protected freedom of expression.”

The UN General Assembly, meanwhile, adopted a resolution on July 25 that terms all acts of violence against holy books a violation of international law.

Asked about the possible reasons for the series of attacks on the Quran, Falk said it could be linked to Sweden’s NATO accession, which has moved closer to materializing after Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to forward it for parliamentary ratification.

“One can speculate that it is somewhat related to a concern that the EU promised things to Türkiye in exchange for allowing Sweden to join NATO,” said Falk.

“And there may be some outside anxiety that this will mean a more of a Muslim presence in Europe. This might conceivably be a way of saying that if the EU goes in that direction, there will be social and political trouble. So, it’s an assertion of a broader anti-immigrant, anti-non-European right-wing bias that has grown to be quite politically strong, including in Sweden and Denmark.”


- Is it hate speech?

About the line between freedom of expression and actions that may be considered offensive to religious beliefs, Falk said they could fall under the umbrella of “free speech,” but could be linked to a “formation of violent behavior” in some cases.

He cited the US as an example, saying the country has a “a rather extreme version of freedom of speech.”

“(In the US) One would have to show not only that the burning of the Quran occurred, but that there’s some connection with an actual crime. Like the Quran that was burned belonged to somebody else, and therefore it was theft, or that it was burned in a public place that endangered public order and property.”

On the question of limits to freedom of speech in cases where, for instance, it threatens security, he said: “Yes, it could be (limited) in certain contexts, if it could be argued to be a threat to security.”

He said various European countries “have a less permissive view of freedom of speech and are more concerned with prohibition of hate crime.”

“Therefore, this kind of act could be prohibited under the broad prohibition against hate speech, which exists, I know, in the UK and Germany, for instance,” he said, adding that the same may not be the case under Scandinavian laws.

Quran burnings could be “alleged to be hate speech,” said Falk, but it also depends on the precedent within a particular country or region.

“There is what the European Court (of Human Rights) has called a margin of appreciation, which means that there is a certain respect given to whatever the national legal power is,” he explained.

“So, it would be important for a full inquiry to know something about Swedish and Danish law, as well as about whether the European Union as a whole has taken any kind of legal action, and whether there is any meaningful precedent for that.”


- Legal measures

Falk said these countries could pass laws to prevent attacks on holy books, emphasizing that they “would have considerable international support at this point.”

"Because there is a recent UN resolution … that does say it’s contrary to international law, to burn or otherwise destroy,” he said.

However, he also pointed out that a recent UN Human Rights Council resolution that condemned acts of religious hatred, including attacks on the Quran, was opposed by 12 countries, including Western powers such as the US, UK, France and Germany.

Another issue Falk raised was determining who holds the power to legislate on such matters.

“In a certain parliamentary system, it would not be the judiciary but the legislative organ that would have the authority. In an autocratic society or monarchy, it would be the king or the dictator or ruler that would have the authority,” he said.

“But it’s always been a contentious kind of issue for democratic societies that encourage free debate among citizens, and at the same time, want to avoid the kind of behavior that results in hate and social behavior that is very destructive for community relations.”


- Threat of violence

Muslims around the world are concerned that these increasing attacks on the Quran could lead to more violence against the community itself.

With book burnings having been one of the main Nazi campaigns in the lead-up to the Holocaust, Falk warned that “democratic societies have to be vigilant against the repetition of this kind of genocidal behavior, because it obviously can be repeated.”

“It has, to a certain extent, been repeated recently in Myanmar, where the Islamic minority … was subjected to what many observers have defined as genocidal,” he said, referring to the plight of the Rohingya community.

Falk, who served on a UN inquiry commission on Palestine and also as the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Palestinian territories, added that Palestinian people have also “been subjected, over a long period of time, to such systemic discrimination, that it has been interpreted as apartheid … and some have alleged that it amounts to a genocidal behavior.”

This is a time to be vigilant about allowing such symbolic expressions of hostility, he said.

“There is this need to strike a balance between allowing debate on controversial issues, but setting limits to legitimate debate,” he stressed.

He said the UN’s involvement in the matter through its recent resolutions has created “a certain kind of legal context within which to conduct this kind of inquiry as to how do you, (and) where should you draw the line, given the historical circumstances we live in at the present time.”

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