Quran burning and the threat to democracy

sweden quran
(Photo: Twitter)
Earlier this year, an American professor was fired when some students felt offended in one of her history classes that discussed and showed a 14th-century painting of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. As a Muslim person, I would not take offence to it, as this happens in a serious academic context, with no intent to publicly disrespect Muslims and their prophet. Not only that, but the professor, as per a New York Times article, warned her students that images of holy figures, including the Prophet Muhammad, would be shown in her course. She also asked anyone who felt uncomfortable about that to contact her, and in class “she prepped students, telling them that in a few minutes, the painting would be displayed, in case anyone wanted to leave”, as she told the New York Times.اضافة اعلان

Despite its relevance to ongoing debates about academic and creative freedoms, the story received little coverage in the Arab World. I was personally intrigued by the controversy that ensued in Western media and the stance of Muslim American figures and organizations who defended the professor’s position, believing that the university’s decision was unwarranted — even from a Muslim perspective. The depictions in question were respectful, discussed in an academic setting, and not intended to mock the Prophet or his followers. This incident should not be considered Islamophobic.

Here is the New York Times’ description of the images: “The painting shown in Dr López Prater’s class is in one of the earliest Islamic illustrated histories of the world, ‘A Compendium of Chronicles’, written during the 14th century by Rashid-Al-Din (1247–1318). Shown regularly in art history classes, the painting shows a winged and crowned Angel Gabriel pointing at the Prophet Muhammad and delivering to him the first Quranic revelation. Muslims believe that the Quran comprises the words of Allah revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel.”

Christiane Gruber, a professor of Islamic art in the History of Art Department at the University of Michigan, described one of the paintings as “an authentic and irreplaceable work of art” and “ a masterpiece of Persian manuscript painting”.
Burning a book in a public sphere is the ultimate expression of an utter refusal of rational dialogue and basic human empathy.
It is important to acknowledge that Islamophobia is, of course, prevalent in the US, and that Muslims are facing increasing levels of hate crimes there. However, the purpose of highlighting this story is to juxtapose it with the inflammatory, racist, and offensive trend of Quran burning in Sweden and other countries, including the US, where it originated and where the act is still protected under the guise of constitutional freedom of speech.

A dangerous trendThis trend of Quran burning, has its roots in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001. One of the most notable instances was in 2010, when Pastor Terry Jones announced in his hometown in Florida that he planned to organize to burn 200 copies of the Quran on the ninth anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

Despite Jones’ canceling of the plan, he set a dangerous trend that spread across the Atlantic. Several incidents of Quran burning have occurred in European countries — particularly Sweden, where such acts have become a specialty and far-right figures have been protected by the government under the guise of freedom of speech. These actions where officially condoned by Swedish authorities, despite their racial nature and intent to incite hatred against Muslim citizens in Sweden in a manner that directly undermines their democratic rights and highlights the crisis of democracy in the West.

Religion plays a significant role in many people’s lives and is often closely tied to their identity. When someone’s religion is mocked or disrespected, it can feel like a personal attack. This can naturally lead to feelings of anger, hurt, and even betrayal by states that are supposed to protect people from injustices.

Destroying democratic valuesBurning religious texts, such as the Quran, is particularly egregious because it is not just an act of disrespect, but also an act of destruction of the democratic values and civil nature of healthy public debates and human interaction. It manifests a heinous urge for a complete cultural destruction, and demonstrates a blatant and intentional disregard for the values of justice, equality, and liberty.
Promoting peace and coexistence in any country requires valuing diversity and respecting it, as well as fighting for fairness within the framework of equal and inclusive citizenship.
Burning books in a public sphere is the ultimate expression of an utter refusal of rational dialogue and basic human empathy. Burning books is genocidal in nature, an attempt to erase and cancel a group of people and their culture, which is centered around the Quran in the case of Muslims. This is why invoking freedom in this context seems irrelevant and misleading, since it is being (mis)used as a tool to create a hostile environment for minority groups, leading to further marginalization and isolation — a situation that inherently contradicts the modern conception of democracy and civil society.

The most recent Quran burning in Sweden occurred amidst a political crisis with Turkey, and governments in both countries are exploiting it for their own agendas. This does not diminish the appalling character of the act — on the contrary, it confirms that allowing the destruction of cultural symbols associated with an imagined enemy is politically motivated, and hence the importance of exerting genuine political and educational efforts to counter such acts due to their anti-democratic nature, since they only serve to undermine peoples’ faith in democracy.

Promoting peace and coexistence in any country requires valuing diversity and respecting it, as well as fighting for fairness within the framework of equal and inclusive citizenship. This means refraining from actions that are likely to cause offense, such as burning religious texts or mocking symbols. It also means actively working to promote understanding and respect for different religions and cultures through civic education and mainstream media. By increasing knowledge about the faiths and beliefs of others, we can promote dialogue and collaboration between different groups.

Surely, the Quran “guides to what is most upright” (17:9) and understanding why it is targeted is essential in trying to preserve its peaceful message — a message that is important to local communities in the West and in the deeply divided world of today, which remains under the threat of different forms of radicalism.

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