The NATO alliance meeting on Tuesday in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, could likely use the occasion to welcome Sweden as its newest member. The one thing that could stop Sweden’s accession is Turkey unless the remaining issues that stand in the way are resolved. One of those issues will undoubtedly be the recent public burning of the Quran by an Iraqi Christian immigrant to Sweden, which was permitted in the name of freedom of speech.
When the predictable uproar followed the Quran burning, Swedish spokespersons framed the issue as a conflict between two values; free speech on the one hand and respect for the feelings of believers on the other. Reminding the public of the Danish experience with the caricatures of Mohammed some years ago, there was reconsideration of which value should dominate.
In framing the issue as a conflict between two liberal values, the Swedes missed the point. Book burning is so much larger than the space of that framework. Swedes have forgotten – or never knew – the long history of book burning and what it signifies and encourages.
Book burnings throughout history
Perhaps the most famous episode of book burning was the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. The famed building and its contents were attacked and burned several times, including in 48 BCE. when Caesar chased Pompey to Egypt and when caliph Omar invaded Alexandria in 640 CE.
Books have been burned for containing heresy and for containing reason. Book burning is a form of cultural domination and cultural destruction. Fear plays a role. In Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451, one character warns another, “A book is a loaded gun in the house next door.” Arguing in favor of burning the book and erasing its knowledge, he continues, “Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”
Book burning was rampant in the Middle Ages. Jewish sacred books were a target, but not the only ones. In the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX ordered the burning of The Talmud along with “those books in which you find errors of this sort, you shall cause to be burned at the stake.”
Perhaps the most infamous example of book burning was undertaken by the Nazis on May 10, 1933. Some 40,000 people gathered to hear Joseph Goebbels speak, “No to decadence and moral corruption!” Tens of thousands of volumes were burned in ritual fires all around Germany, and we all know what followed.
The bonfire continued into our century. In February 2015, the terrorist group, The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, burned down the Mosul University library in Iraq.
Sweden's reputation and future
Surely Sweden – full disclosure, one of its universities granted me a Ph.D. in an atmosphere of free inquiry and tolerance – does not want to be in the company of book-burners, in even a passive manner, by allowing the burning of sacred books.
Joining NATO is vital for Sweden and the other 31 NATO members as a defense against Russian fascism with expansionist designs for the continent. But a Europe without the value of balancing free speech with respecting the values and ideas of the written word makes a triumph over Russia a hollow victory.
The author is a psychologist, writer, and radio and television commentator. She hosts a podcast, The Van Leer Institute Series on Ideas.