A wave of deep sorrow, regret, and anger swept across the Muslim world after extremist Danish-Swedish politician Rasmus Paludan last week burned copies of the Quran outside mosques and the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm.
Under police protection, the far-right provocateur, infamous for his Islamophobic views, torched the holy book and announced that he will keep repeating this act until Sweden is admitted into the NATO alliance, something it has sought amid Russia’s war on Ukraine.
“This mosque has no place in Denmark,” said Paludan in a live stream on his Facebook page, while being protected by riot police personnel.
The Muslim world protested, and Türkiye condemned the action, asking pointedly why the “Islam-hating charlatan” Paludan was permitted to burn copies of the holy book.
“Showing tolerance towards such heinous acts that offend the sensitivities of millions of people living in Europe threatens the practice of peaceful coexistence and provokes racist, xenophobic, and anti-Muslim attacks,” said a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement.
Denmark, meanwhile, maintained their hands tied over the hate crime due to the revocation of the nation’s blasphemy laws in 2017. The Nordic country’s now-defunct blasphemy law called for up to four months in prison upon conviction, although most people were fined instead. It appears that Paludan’s action remains short of conviction, as there is no law in the country to challenge him.
This entire situation prompts questions over a country where Muslim immigration remains a contentious political issue, where Syrian refugees often have their temporary residence status revoked overnight, and where mainstream political parties entertain the idea of shifting their asylum facility to Rwanda in order to stop accommodating refugees in Denmark, and where no law enforcement action is taken on a far-right politician who continues to wound the sentiments of millions of people: Does Denmark present the case of Islamophobia in action?
‘Our society should decide on limits of freedom of speech’
Dr. Urfan Zahoor Ahmed, a Muslim community leader associated with the Danish Muslim Union – founded in 2008, now the largest umbrella organization for Muslim associations and mosques in Denmark – said there cannot be a denial on the existence of Islamophobia within the Danish borders through structural power institutions and individual choices based on predispositions.
Commenting on the alternate view rooted in freedom of expression to justify anti-Islamic comments and actions, he said: “It actually hurts even more when the people are saying that it is just freedom of speech. And you should just live with it because it should never be a case that as a minority you have to live with the defamation of your holy prophet and holy scriptures.”
The Muslim activist, who is also a physician and teaches at Copenhagen University, added: “If we as a society declare that Holocaust denial, child pornography, blasphemy laws, and opposition to the queen are not accepted, so then that is the choice of the society. (Danish) politicians have chosen that Paludan has the right to burn the Quran. We, as a society, should decide where the limit is to this freedom of speech. Because it is not limitless.”
Lene Kuhle of Aarhus University’s School of Culture and Society, who focuses on the Muslim community in Denmark, believes that the phenomena of Islamophobia is indeed a reality within the country but Paludan’s actions prevent a difficult situation as despite no major support from Danish society for his action, his actions are within the law.
“We did not use to discuss Islamophobia a lot in Denmark but it has become more of a topic of discussion and that is a good development because people are now critically reviewing how people talk about Islam, Muslims, and immigrants,” she said.
‘Liberty at the cost of community’
While acknowledging the presence of Islamophobia, she said it is untrue that the entire Danish system is completely embedded in Islamophobia.
“It is necessary to be investigated to what extent Islamophobia influences Danish society. It is important to contextualize why it is happening. The media has quite a large role to try and explain this is the work of one man who is trying to get attention, he is a lawyer who knows the limitations of the legal system. As long as he stays within the limits of the law, it is very difficult to do something about it.”
The Muslim community of Denmark continues to protest the desecration of the holy book, while community leaders request people not take the laws into their hands and respond to hate with love and respect. Yet questions are being raised over the police protection and permissions being given by the authorities for the anti-Islamic act.
“The West needs to acknowledge the fact that permitting Islamophobic words and actions that have the potential to incite violence against Muslims is a liberty at the cost of a community,” said a protestor at the same site in Copenhagen a day after Paludan burned the Quran – but this time with no authorities around.