Sweden, that Nordic bastion of liberal democracy, appears to be in the throes of a spate of sacred book burnings.
Two weeks ago, during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, two men stood outside a Stockholm mosque, tore pages out of a Quran, and set them on fire – after receiving a permit from local police to do so.
The desecration of the Muslim holy book triggered furious protests across the Muslim world: a mob stormed the Swedish embassy in Baghdad, several Muslim countries summoned their resident Swedish ambassadors, and various Muslim leaders issued statements slamming Sweden for permitting the incident.
Leaders of other faith groups, including the Swedish Jewish community, also issued condemnations of the Quran burning, and Israel’s President Isaac Herzog decried the act.
“I was horrified when I heard the recent news from Sweden, about the desecration of a Quran, holy to the believers of Islam,” Herzog said last Sunday. “One cannot and one should not remain silent in the face of this… These acts are diametrically opposed to all the values of partnership between faiths for which we as a people and a country yearn, and we must all stand against this wherever it should arise.”
The Quran burning set off a series of requests for permits to publicly burn other sacred books. Then, this past week, Swedish authorities approved a request to burn a Torah and a Christian Bible outside the Israeli embassy on Shabbat.
Jewish and Israeli leaders strongly condemned the decision to approve the request.
“It was with consternation and sadness that we received the news about the police’s approval of the burning of the Torah in Stockholm on Saturday, July 15,” said the Jewish Central Council, the umbrella organization of Swedish Jewry.
“As a people of the book, the Torah is our most sacred treasure of moral codes and ethics that have changed the world we live in. Our tragic European history links the burning of Jewish books with pogroms, expulsions, inquisitions, and the Holocaust.”
“Burning holy books, be it the Quran, the Torah, or the New Testament, are hateful acts that we perceive as direct threats to the societies that value them,” the Central Council said.
“I unequivocally condemn the permission granted in Sweden to burn holy books,” President Herzog said on Friday. “As the President of the State of Israel, I condemned the burning of the Quran, sacred to Muslims the world over, and I am now heartbroken that the same fate awaits a Jewish Bible, the eternal book of the Jewish people.”
“Permitting the defacement of sacred texts is not an exercise in freedom of expression, it is blatant incitement and an act of pure hate,” the president added. “The whole world must join together in clearly condemning this repulsive act.”
Torah burning was to draw attention
In a surprising and welcome twist, the man who had requested the permit – a Muslim activist of Syrian origin named Ahmad Alush – showed up outside the embassy on Saturday with a lighter but no Torah or Bible, saying that he never intended to burn the religious texts.
“It is against the Quran to burn and I will not burn. No one should do that,” he told the assembled media. “This is a response to the people who burn the Quran. I want to show that freedom of expression has limits that must be taken into account.”
“I want to show that we have to respect each other,” said Alush. “We live in the same society. If I burn the Torah, another the Bible, another the Quran, there will be war here. What I wanted to show is that it’s not right to do it.”
Alush saved Swedish authorities from themselves, preventing another wave of furious condemnations and heightened religious tensions while demonstrating the folly of approving the burning of sacred texts.
Freedom of expression is a sacred principle in every democracy, but it must be balanced against the massive disturbance to public peace and the tremendous harm to religious sensibilities caused by sacred book burnings.
Swedish authorities have erred repeatedly in recent weeks in approving these public acts of hate. We hope they take Alush’s words of caution to heart.