A Quran Burns, What’s Next?

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Multicultural policies are designed to help the integration and inclusion of minorities and immigrants within a country. When a protected speech act stokes outrage from other countries, what role should external reactions and potential retaliation have on national policies?



In late June, on one of the holiest days of the Muslim calendar,  Salwan Momika set himself up in front of a mosque in Stockholm, Sweden, and recorded himself burning pages of the Quran. He then posted the video to multiple social media sites, stoking anger inside and outside of Sweden, among Muslims and many others who interpreted the act as hateful, offensive, and racist – which it almost certainly was.

Much of the anger outside of Sweden emanated from Muslim majority countries, who in some cases encouraged public protest against Sweden in response. Jordan’s government called the act “a racist act of serious hate”, for example, and Egypt’s government described the act as “shameful.” Even the  Swedish Foreign Ministry condemned the action, describing it as “an offensive and disrespectful act and a clear provocation” and going on to make clear that “expressions of racism, xenophobia and related intolerance have no place in Sweden or in Europe.”

This reaction was perhaps odd, given that Mr. Momika needed a permit to carry out the act, which he applied for and received. While the police had initially denied him a permit, a Swedish court ruled that the denial, justified with respect to vague security related concerns, was a violation of Swedish freedom of speech laws, paving the way for the issuance of the permit.  Even as it condemned his actions, the Swedish Foreign Ministry noted that the right to freedom of assembly, expression and demonstration” is constitutionally protected in Sweden. Subsequent public debate has focused reasonably on whether such acts, protected as speech, should be banned, discouraged, or permitted.

There is another question lurking about, which needs more attention however, which is, to what extent should Swedish domestic policy be influenced by the global response to its choices?  Polls recently conducted suggest that Swedes are in favour of modifying the law to ban the burning of holy books, and though the reason for this support is not made clear, it is reasonable to believe that it in part derives from global condemnation and in part from the alleged security threats to which Swedes are now made subject.

But, multicultural policy – of which regulating respectful speech across diverse groups is one key element – is domestic, and should be largely focused on how a state can best integrate and include its minorities as full and equal citizens, rather than on what on what other states think and say.


Multicultural Policy and Freedom of Expression

Multicultural policy is a broad term for a range of accommodation policies that aim to ensure the fair integration of immigrants and the just inclusion of all minority citizens.  Examples of multicultural policies include uniform modifications, for example for police officers and nurses, so that Hijabi women and Sikh and Jewish men can take on those roles without sacrificing a religious commitment, or public financial support for “ethnic” media organizations to produce material in multiple languages so that minority language users can access it, or the construction of museums to highlight and honour the contribution of minorities to public life in various ways.  Where and when to render some speech “hate speech”, or otherwise illegal or discouraged, is a key multicultural question, since it shapes what can be said about whom in public spaces.

Multicultural policy is domestic policy, i.e., it is policy that states adopt to accommodate the specific minorities that live within their jurisdiction and the specific challenges that they face.  Only some countries will need policies to recognize and respect Indigenous peoples; others will require policies to remedy the impacts of slavery; and yet others to manage immigrant minorities with unfamiliar religious backgrounds.  Multicultural policies moreover are shaped by the domestic legal and political context of the state: France’s history of secularism and Canada’s history of (relative) openness to immigration shape the ways in which they engage with the cultural and religious minorities who call their countries home.

When Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a decree calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie for his alleged blasphemous portrayal of Islam in the novel Satanic Verses, and even when Muslims around the world protested the publication of cartoons in Jyllands-Posten portraying the prophet Muhammad in a problematic light (protests that were stoked by certain Muslim leaders, and which ultimately resulted in the death of over 100 people but none in Denmark itself), the general public response was to reject the idea that the perspectives of foreign states was relevant.

In the Danish case, the timing of protests abroad mattered. For approximately 6 weeks after the cartoons were published, there was internal protest in Denmark, as some argued in defense of freedom of speech, saying that its protection is fundamental to any liberal democracy, and others argued that variously that media and others with loud voices should refrain from insulting or offending – especially, deliberately – minority communities, especially where these communities remain at the margins of society, subject to discrimination and racism.  A duty of civility was proclaimed – freedom of speech must absolutely be protected, those who defended this duty argued, but those who have this right have a moral duty to use it respectfully.  The cartoon’s publisher violated this duty, and moreover they did so deliberately, with the intent to insult and provoke.

Things changed 6 weeks after the initial publication, when several Imams travelled from Denmark to several middle eastern countries, with a dossier full of the cartoons and other alleged evidence of Islamophobia in the west and used this dossier to provoke protests – many of which turned violent and then deadly – directed against Denmark.  It was not clear whether anyone in Denmark was responsible for this response, and deaths since all of it happened outsideof Denmark – though often in front of Danish embassies putting Danish citizens abroad at some risk.  But no one in Denmark seriously suggested modifying the law as a response to these protests.

When staff at the satirical magazine  Charlie Hebdo were murdered, at the hands of terrorists, the claim was that the attack was a response to the publication of similarly provocative Islamophobia material in France, again prompting difficult conversations about the limits and boundaries of speech.  Again here, however, no one seriously proposed that France should alter its laws to prevent the same thing from transpiring in the future.  The management of freedom of speech, and its constraints with respect to hateful or offensive statements directed at minorities, was understood to be a domestic issue entirely.

Multicultural policy was about how best to manage the integration and inclusion of minorities, some of whom are immigrants; now it is about that, and it is about how best to adopt policies that protect citizens from sources of violence and insecurity. Is it a good change?


Domestic Actions and Global Reactions

Nearly 20 years after the publication of the cartoons in Denmark, there is awareness of the many domestic implications of failing to heed the external criticisms.  For one thing, when the Swedish police initially denied the permit to Mr. Momika, they cited security worries – vague enough that the Court overruled the denial – some of which might have been thought to come from outside.  Swedish embassies, and the individuals who staff them, were put at risk of protests, some of which might have turned violent.  Trade relations might well be impacted, as they were in Denmark. And those who carry out these acts – individual protestors for example but also media organizations that publish offensive material – are subject to death threats and violent attacks.

And, of course, Sweden is attempting to join NATO, and although Turkey withdrew its objection, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan  had commented just after the incident that “We will teach the arrogant Western people that it is not freedom of expression to insult the sacred values of Muslims,” briefly  hinting that Sweden’s permissive response to Quran-burners could impact its vote on whether to admit Sweden to NATO.

Combining all of these concerns with a steady stream of invective directed against Sweden from outsiders, Swedes appear prepared to support changes in the law to ban the burning of the Quran. Speaking to a newspaper, and reflecting this public support, the Swedish Justice Minister  Gunnar Strömmer suggested that permitting acts such as Quran burning appeared to put Sweden at risk for “jihadist violence”, continuing that “We have seen arrests in Sweden on suspicion of preparation for a terrorist offence…There have been arrests in Germany on suspicion of preparation for a terrorist offence against Sweden in the light of this. We can also see that the burning of the Quran last week has generated threats to our internal security.”

This suggestion, for which there is public support, is a sea change in how to think about multicultural policy: what had been perceived and treated as a domestic issue suddenly has an external dimension, making at least some elements of multicultural policy into foreign policy.  Multicultural policy was about how best to manage the integration and inclusion of minorities, some of whom are immigrants; now it is about that, and it is about how best to adopt policies that protect citizens from sources of violence and insecurity.


Multiculturalism and Sweden’s Muslim Population

Is it a good change? That question is different from whether it is a rational one for states to take, which it may be, in light of the threats that stem from outside in response to the public desecration of holy books or the publication of insulting cartoons.  Perhaps, if speech is restricted on the grounds that public safety will be better protected, that makes sense.

For the record, I happen to agree with liberal multicultural scholars who believe that states should take care to ensure respectful speech in the public space, and should take a heavy hand with respect to interpreting what counts as hateful, racist speech.  In other words, I believe the duty of civility is real.

Yet, the shifting of multicultural policy, away from its main focus on establishing the fair terms of integration and inclusion for immigrants and minorities, in line with the principles and norms that guide a particular state, towards whether policies will best offer security to its citizens and residents from outside threats, is troubling.

For one thing, it threatens to provide one good at the expense of another, suggesting that they cannot be achieved together: physical security is prioritized over best local practices for securing integration and inclusion. For another, it threatens resentment among the population that does not support the changes, whose voice is overshadowed not by fellow citizens but by outsiders who do not have the right to vote – there are important democratic reasons to ensure that such changes are supported domestically before they are enacted.

Worst of all, it distracts – in the cases at issue here – from the real issues that face many Muslims in democratic, especially European, states, namely that so many face barriers to integration including in the form of rampant Islamophobia.  The vast, vast, majority of Europe’s Muslims are European, are loyal to the countries in which they live, and generally share political concerns that map on to those of everyone else.  They do not in general feel represented by the leaders of Muslim countries, who decry incidents like the burning of the Quran and encourage protests against them – even if they too wish it did not happen – and responding to those leaders as though it is attentive to the needs of their own citizens and residents undermines them and threatens to ignore the difficulties they face in reality, many of which stem from persistent discrimination, in getting jobs, in gaining access to quality education, in riding transit safely, and so on. These difficulties – not the banning of freedom of speech – should be the focus of Sweden’s multicultural policy.

To raise worries about the impact of external voices on domestic multicultural policy is not to say that these external voices must be ignored, or that foreign policy is not relevant.  Nor is it to say that the voices of external actors should never have an impact on how “we” do things “around here.” No one would deny that states external to South Africa were right to protest the Apartheid regime, until it crumbled for example.

It is to say, however, that for democratic reasons having to do with who does and should have a say in domestic politics, such a change must find internal support for reasons other than fear of external retaliation.  Such a policy change might protect security in the short term, but in the long term it fails to respond in a meaningful way to the difficulties that Muslim immigrants face in Europe, difficulties that are generated not by external actors but by Islamophobic fellow citizens and residents on a day-to-day basis.





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