Europe's Far Right, Muslim Protests And The Quran: Is It All About Freedom Of Expression?

As a result of recent events, the Danish government proposed a ban on public burning of the Quran. What drives the cycle of provocation, protest and propaganda?

Europe's Far Right, Muslim Protests And The Quran: Is It All About Freedom Of Expression?

For several years – especially since the so-called European "migration crisis", which began about 2015 – an increase in chauvinist sentiments, including anti-Islam feelings, has been observed in European countries. This has been especially true for Scandinavian countries. One effect of these sentiments is also an increase in the number of Quran burnings. 

In 2017, in line with the idea of "free speech," Denmark abolished the blasphemy law, which prohibited public insults to religion, such as burning holy books. In 2019, a group called Stop Islamisation of Norway was founded in Norway, which often burns the Quran at its rallies. Rasmus Paludan, leader of the Stram Kurs – translated as ’Hard Line,’ has been organising Quran-burning events in public since 2020. On 28 June 2023, Salwan Momika, an Iraqi immigrant living in Sweden, burned a copy of the Quran that he had previously wrapped in bacon outside the central mosque in Stockholm – the event occurred during Eid al-Adha. This event caused large protests in Muslim countries due to the fact that the very burning of the Quran by Momik took place in the "majesty of the law." This is because the organisation of this protest was allowed by the Swedish Appeal Court. On 24 July, a Quran was burned outside the Iraqi embassy by Danske Patrioter. On 25 July, protestors burned a Quran outside the Egyptian embassy in Copenhagen, and on the same day, a Quran was burned outside the Turkish embassy. On 31 July a total of seven Quran-burnings were planned in Denmark.

As for Salwan Momika – although he currently considers himself a liberal (which is not strange, for as we say in Poland "only a cow does not change its views") – a few years ago he was associated with an extremist Christian militia. A few years ago, he pledged allegiance to the Imam Ali Brigades and was also the founder of the Syrian Democratic Union and Desert Hawks Brigade, an armed militia created in 2014 and affiliated with the pseudo-Christian militia Babylon Movement. In 2019, however, he changed his views drastically and his social media profiles began to be dominated by content mainly criticising the Iraqi government.

There are several theories as to why Momika then publicly burned the Quran:

Some, such as political commentator of Syrian descent Kevork Almassian, claim that this was planned and works to the benefit of Islamic extremists (which is basically the Swedish government's narrative).

Jerry Maher, a Swedish political writer and specialist in the Middle East and Iran, claims that Momika's main motivation for burning the Quran was a change in asylum regulations in Sweden: in connection with the public burning of the holy book of Islam, he began to receive numerous death threats, which will probably save him from possible deportation from Sweden. 

According to a statement released by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry on 10 July, his recent act of Quran-burning was coordinated with Tel Aviv in order to divert attention from Israel’s brutal operation in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin earlier this month. 

Initially, the only reaction to the burning of the Quran was condemnation by the governments of Denmark and Sweden. Then the incident was also condemned by the EU's foreign policy chief Joseph Borell. He said: "burning the holy book of Islam is offensive, disrespectful and a clear provocation."

The consequence of these events was voting in the relevant UN body – which was in practice only symbolic, not having legal force. The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the 12th of July 2023 condemning the burning of the Quran as a religious hate act, despite warnings from several nations that this might restrict freedom of speech. According to a Euronews article: 28 of the Council's 47 members approved it, including China, Ukraine, and most African countries. There were seven abstentions and twelve states votes against, including France, Germany, the UK, and the USA. The resolution condemns "all advocacy and manifestations of religious hatred, including recent public and premeditated desecrations of the Quran," calling on countries to enact laws to prosecute those responsible.

However, the Prime Minister of Sweden made some highly unobvious claims: he accused Russia of "leading a disinformation campaign aimed at showing that Sweden as a state is behind the profanation of various scriptures." The Western press, which systematically seizes every opportunity to attack Russia since 2022, very quickly picked up on this narrative – with the Guardian, for instance, writing that "the Quran burning incident in Stockholm, which threatens Sweden's attempts to join NATO, was funded by a far-right journalist with ties to Kremlin-backed media.” Of course, it should be mentioned that Turkish President Recep Erdogan had hinted at delaying Sweden NATO bid after it allowed burning of Quran.

Many Muslim countries have taken various measures following the Quran-burning incidents in Sweden and Denmark this year. For example, Kuwait announces to print 100,000 copies of the Quran translated into the Swedish language, to be distributed in Sweden. Protests erupted in many countries, the largest being Iraqi - in July, protesters attacked the Swedish embassy, driving out the ambassador and setting fire to the premises after Momika burned the Quran in front of a mosque in Stockholm. In connection with this incident, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani even expelled the Swedish ambassador and suspended the work permit of the Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson. The Saudi Foreign Ministry also slammed the incident, saying, "these hateful and repeated acts cannot be accepted with any justification, and they clearly incite hatred, exclusion, and racism." Egypt called the holy book's desecration "shameful" and voiced concern about “repeated incidents” of the burning of the Quran in Europe. German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius cancelled a planned trip to Iraq and Jordan, due to security concerns after the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad was set on fire in a protest over Quran burning demonstrations in Europe.

As a result of these events, the Danish government proposed a ban on public burning of the Quran. However, the main reason (as the Danish authorities claim) is not the protests in Muslim countries, but "fear for the security of the country," as Justice Minister Peter Hummelgaard fears an increase in Islamist terrorism in Denmark. So far, the Swedish authorities have no plans to ban the burning of the Quran, although polls show that such legislation would be supported by around 53% of Swedes.

We must return, however, to the initial considerations – namely, the growth of chauvinism not only in the Scandinavian countries but also throughout Europe (and basically the entire world). The people of Europe, apparently, have short memories because they think it all started in the 2010s when hundreds of thousands of Libyans and Syrians started fleeing to Europe from the wars that destroyed their homes, and which were unleashed by NATO. Some EU leaders, such like Angela Merkel, were very enthusiastic about accepting these immigrants, but at the same time a very strong, far-right anti-immigrant group developed (Le Pen, Salvini, AFD, Sweden Democrats) and over time other parties adopted similar rhetoric - for example, the Danish Social Democrats. Thus, for almost a decade, the main axis of European politics has not been jobs, inflation, health care, education, climate, etc, but the issue of immigration. 

But there is absolutely no dialectic in these discussions. In 1870, in his Letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, Karl Marx explained the phenomenon remarkably well – and more importantly, this point of view is still incredibly relevant:

“The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the USA. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

If we understand the mechanism described by Marx 150 years ago, ie the use of antagonisms between local and migrant workers by the bourgeoisie in order to maintain their profits and influence, we cannot accept chauvinistic rhetoric. This rhetoric in a reactionary way produces anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Hindutva, Zionism, etc. We must go beyond this. 

Since he understood this process better than others, let us point to a way forward in Marx's own words: “if the working class wishes to continue its struggle with some chance of success, the national organisations must become international.”

The author is a student of law in Poland