Freedom of Expression: Totem or Pretext?

    On January 21, Rasmus Paludan, the leader of the Danish far-right party Stram Kurs (Hard Line), burnt a copy of the Quran during his demonstration in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. Despite Turkish foreign policy officials warning their Swedish counterparts, Paludan’s protest was considered to be within the scope of freedom of expression and was permitted. This cheap act of provocation was soon met with the prompt condemnation of state officials of many states, such as Türkiye, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, and Qatar.

    “The burning of the Holy Qur’an in Stockholm is a clear crime of hatred and humanity. We vehemently condemn this. Allowing this action despite all our warnings is encouraging hate crimes and Islamophobia. The attack on sacred values is not freedom but modern barbarism,” tweeted İbrahim Kalın, Turkish Presidential Spokesperson. On the other hand, Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar announced the cancellation of the meeting in Ankara planned to be held next week with his Swedish counterpart.

    Sweden, which needs Ankara’s approval for its NATO bid, has recently engaged in counterproductive acts that drew the ire of the Turkish public opinion about its membership process. Last week, supporters of the YPG/PKK terrorist organisation hanged Turkish President Erdoğan’s effigy in Stockholm. 

    Paludan, the perpetrator of the most recent inflammatory protest, has a long track record of Islamophobic acts in the past. In addition to a series of hate crimes, including burning copies of the Qur’an, he is also responsible for the public order-damaging riots where vehicles were set on fire, and many police officers and civilians were injured. The Danish far-right extremist, who was disbarred from the profession of law for three years, had his driver’s license confiscated for one year and sentenced to a month in prison in 2020, boasted about his action in his latest Instagram post.

    “Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of democracy. But what is legal is not necessarily appropriate. Burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act. I want to express my sympathy for all Muslims who are offended by what has happened in Stockholm today,” the last tweet of the Swedish PM’s official Twitter account stated

    This isn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last time such provocations are put forward. So, how can we make sense of the acute problem of considering such insulting acts always in the scope of freedom of expression and human rights? There are two primary reasons why this strategy of using concepts such as human rights, freedom of expression and democracy as a common guise is so prevalent in Western countries. First, there is an inherent way of reasoning in Western countries that characterise themselves as playmakers of the rules-based international order that only they will determine how the boundaries of these concepts are drawn. 

    Take freedom of speech, for example. It is astonishing to evaluate the protest within the scope of freedom of expression, given that many scholarly debates about where this freedom begins and ends are full of sophisticated discussions and studies. In addition, it is nothing but an effort to strengthen this unsubstantiated claim by directly connecting the issue to democracy. Of course, it is important to express sympathy to the Muslim community in the face of this humiliating act against the sacredness of a religion with billions of followers. However, the most important thing was to not consider this act within the scope of freedom of expression and adopt an idealist and pre-emptive attitude against similar situations that may occur in the future. Alas, Sweden has failed to achieve that. 

    Also, the discursive ease with which state officials can frequently use concepts such as human rights, freedom of expression and democracy to pass any provocation is baffling. It is almost like an escape ramp for interpreting these acts with these concepts, thereby limiting the political discourse to a narrower area. In the face of many Islamophobic acts, leaders are inclined to take the issue out of its real scope, which is a hate crime, and in this way deviate from the gist of the matter by taking refuge at the so-called “liberal” Western identity. What about the consequences? What about the victims? Trying to cover up a hate crime with freedom of expression is like trying to buy themselves a fig leaf to hide their embarrassment. 

    It is time to question those who have placed themselves as the guardians of the temple, drawing as they wish the boundaries of human rights, democracy, and freedom of speech. Freedom of expression, like all forms of freedom, ends where another person’s scope of freedom begins. It is now evident to see how clichéd is the use of freedom of speech and democracy to cover entrenched Islamophobic sentiments. In addition, this issue is too broad and significant to be limited to two NATO candidates that found it difficult to keep their distance from terror groups. Time will tell us the ability of Western democracies to minimise the harms of far-right and other racist political groups. The problem with the latter is that they often get out of control, much like Frankenstein’s monster, and they won’t stop at abusing Islam and victimising Muslims. Breivik’s massacre in neighbouring Norway (Utoya island) conveyed that exact message.

    This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the website Middle East Monitor.

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