THE public defilement of Islamic sanctities — mainly by Islamophobic provocateurs in the West — serves no particular purpose other than to stoke the flames of hatred. It is, in fact an ugly manifestation of the far right’s extreme animosity towards Islam and Muslims. In this regard, Denmark’s recent passage of a law banning the desecration of religious books is a step in the right direction. The development comes in the wake of several burnings of the Holy Quran over the past few months mostly in the Scandinavian states. Before these outrages, there was a series of offensive caricatures and crudely made films, again mostly originating in Europe, designed to insult all that Muslims hold sacred. The Danish law criminalises “inappropriate treatment” of recognised religious scripture, including their public burning or defiling, as well as disseminating these vile acts via video, proposing either a fine or jail term for those who break the law. The Danish administration has made the move on security grounds, though members of the far right in the country have termed it a ‘betrayal’ of their supposed values.
If a socially liberal country like Denmark can criminalise the desecration of religious material, other Western states, too, can follow suit. As this paper has argued previously, the sacred symbols of all faiths deserve respect, and troublemakers cannot be allowed to play with religious sensitivities by indulging in such reckless behaviour in the name of free speech. Moreover, just as there are Holocaust denial laws on the books in many countries, similarly, legislation that penalises religious hatred is the need of the hour globally. Under the garb of free expression, some of the most hateful and divisive elements in non-Muslim societies desecrate religious symbols, particularly those belonging to Islam. These same groups harbour a vision where their countries must be ‘cleansed’ of all ‘others’ — racially, culturally, and religiously — through violence if necessary. The West can help isolate these elements through legislation that criminalises religious hatred. If there is no dialogue of civilisations based on tolerance and respect, particularly of sacred symbols, hate-filled actors will get a chance, under nebulous notions of free expression, to push for a civilisational clash. The West needs to understand that just as the Holocaust is not up for discussion in their societies, Islam’s revered symbols, too, are a red line in Muslim cultures.
Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2023