Being careful in defending the freedom expression
has been experiencing difficulties SWEDEN these days. A Danish-Swedish man with political aspirations by the name of Rasmus Paludan, whose ideas most of us would probably find outrageous, has made plans to burn the pages of the Quran in his campaign on behalf of the Stram Kurs (apparently meaning hard line) party to garner support for his campaign and get his name on the ballot. Information available suggests that the gentleman has so far been unable to collect the signatures that would enable his name to appear on the ballot – his unorthodox actions were probably intended to attract the attention of the public to get the needed signatures. Viewed from this perspective, Mr. Paludan may have achieved his aim of mobilizing the public to give credence to his pleas. The fact that the response to his plans to burn pages of the Quran has been violent has only helped him to further polarize the public and probably added to the ranks of his supporters people who think he should be able to express his viewpoints. But before accepting the argument that if Mr. Paludan’s threats or potential actions had been ignored, he would have failed to receive the attention of the public, let us examine what has transpired a bit more carefully.
Let us begin by remembering that this is not the first time we are facing such a crisis. We have had earlier incidents, most notably in Denmark and in France in the form of cartoons generating violent protests. The cartoonists were defended as exercising their freedom of expression. If these people have a right to publish cartoons that are perceived as insulting to religion, I imagine that those who are members of the slandered religion have the right to express their displeasure in the way they see fit, provided that they do not engage in violence. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, authorities and especially political leaders have chosen to limit their freedom of expression, showing no empathy to those who have felt insulted. Nor have they offered guidance or support to peaceful protests.
But let us look a bit deeper. The fact that a cartoon or a plan to burn the pages of the Quran generates a violent response probably has deeper roots that an ill-considered act simply triggers. My impression is that the protestors engaging in violence probably feel themselves isolated and, above all, denigrated members of the country in which they live, constantly running into manifestation of disrespect, disregard, marginalization. They are fuming with frustration and anger. The triggering event simply provides an opportunity to express themselves violently. Even then, of course, the violence and the ensuing damage to lives and property cannot be condoned. But there is one aspect of this that those societies that make statements on the sanctity of freedom of expression should ponder. I am referring to what I would call the asymmetric exercise of freedom. I suspect that the political leaders and citizens of those societies where Muslims feel insulted are more sympathetic towards the “freedom of expression” to insult Muslims over those of other monotheistic faiths.
If, for example, Mr. Paludan had chosen to burn the pages of a Jewish holy book, such as the Old Testament, explicitly directing his unfriendly remarks against the Jews, the public and the political leadership would be up in arms about anti-semitism. The collective feelings of guilt about Nazism, a movement which found many supporters in most European societies, France, Sweden and Denmark not excepted, constitute an effective brake against such provocative behavior. I suspect that Mr. Paludan and the like know that they cannot get away with openly insulting Jews and therefore abstain from doing it.
I am equally curious about another possibility. What would happen if a Muslim did the same to the bible as Mr. Paludan proposed to do to the Quran. I do not know the answer but I suspect Mr. Paludan and his sympathizers would probably stage violent demonstrations, attack Muslims, and damage Muslim property. What I am equally unsure about is whether political leaders who defend insulting behavior against Muslims as a natural outcome of the freedom of expression in their societies would defend the freedom of expression of their Muslim citizens with equal conviction. They are more likely to plead for tolerance.
There are enough reasons why a Turk might envy the extensive freedom of expression in Sweden, Denmark or France. But if the political leaders of these societies show some empathy to those who feel insulted rather than turn to a blind defense of freedom of expression as a license to insult people of another religion, they would contribute more effectively to their own domestic peace as well as that of the world.