Over the past six months, Sweden has been enflamed by a series of Quran burnings. Beginning in January, far-right Danish provocateur Rasmus Paludan burned a Quran outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm. After drawing strong condemnation, a second demonstration was denied by the police, citing national security concerns. This decision was overruled by the courts, allowing for the most recent burning to take place outside a Stockholm Mosque during Eid al-Adha, only for the police to later charge the organizer, a secular Muslim refugee from Iraq, with a hate crime.
In this murky state of affairs, it was only a matter of time before someone would seek to burn other religious texts as well. Last week, the Swedish Police permitted the burning of a Torah outside of the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm. The Muslim activist who had received permission, however, did not follow through, stating that he never intended to burn religious texts and wanted only to draw attention to the boundaries between freedom of speech and hate crimes.
Whether it is a Quran, Torah, or Bible, when a religious book is burned, it is neither “just a book” that is going up in flames, nor a “critique” of the religious practice. Rather, the book is a proxy for the targeted minority with a clear message sent: Your words, beliefs, and traditions do not belong in this society, nor do you.
The burning of a Torah has obvious historical connotations. At no point in Jewish history has the burning of Jewish texts simply ended as a symbolic gesture. Moreover, violence towards Jews is not limited to history books, but on the rise in Europe and worldwide.
To be clear, the burning of the Quran and Torah is equally hateful towards both religious groups and should be met with equal condemnation. Jewish and Muslim communities share the same concern: Even if burning the Torah, Quran, or Bible is said to be symbolic, what is the symbolic message? Such public demonstrations of hate often lead to real-world violence.
As World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder said, "the burning of religious texts is an unmistakable act of hate and a fundamental attack against all who adhere to any faith."
Sensing that the current climate is untenable, Sweden has already embarked on a period of reflection, with parliament reviewing hate-speech laws and a recent poll reveals that for the first time a majority of Swedes favor a ban of Quran burnings. As Sweden grapples with the legal balancing act of protecting free speech and protecting its minority groups, what should not be lost sight of are the minorities’ understanding of such demonstrations, which are often perceived as an attack against them.
Eric Adamson is a Swedish member of the World Jewish Congress’ Jewish Diplomatic Corps. This program elevates the new generations of outstanding Jewish leaders under the leadership of WJC President Ronald S. Lauder.