In recent months, the act of burning or tearing up a Quran has caused unrest and anger within the Muslim community. This article explores a recent demonstration organized by the protest movement Pegida in The Hague, where the burning and destruction of the holy book was announced. Islamic organizations and political parties find this action unacceptable and call for its prohibition. Despite their pleas, the demonstration is allowed to proceed, leading to some tensions and clashes between the demonstrators and counter-demonstrators. This raises questions about the balance between protecting freedom of expression and preventing hate crimes. The article also highlights the increased threat level in Sweden due to Quran burnings and the global reactions to these acts. Ultimately, the debate surrounding the burning or tearing up of religious scriptures raises important questions about the limits of freedom of speech.
Like someone wants to destroy their identity. This is how it feels, according to Mustafa Aktalan, when someone burns or tears up a Quran. He is president of the Islamic Community Milli Görüş (IGMG), a socio-religious movement for Muslims. “Everything I do, I do from my faith. When I eat I do it in the name of Allah, when I finish eating I thank Allah.” The Koran is not a piece of paper and his faith not an afterthought, he emphasizes.
It explains the unrest that arose in the Muslim community when the protest movement Pegida announced that it wanted to demonstrate on Friday evening in front of the Turkish embassy on the Koninginnegracht in The Hague. In recent months, Korans have been burned or destroyed several times in protests in Sweden and Denmark. In The Hague, too, demonstrators have torn up the holy book for Muslims, just as Pegida spokesman Edwin Wagensveld had announced in advance.
IGMG, the political party Denk and other social organizations find this unacceptable. In a letter to the mayor of The Hague, they asked in advance to ban Pegida’s action. “As far as we are concerned, this is not a demonstration, but a hate action,” says Stephan van Baarle, chairman of Denk in the House of Representatives.
Demonstration leads to few problems
Nevertheless, the demonstration continued, which did not lead to major problems. There was a lot of police on the scene and the embassy street was closed off. Pegida and the demonstrators were separated, not only by the police, but also by a canal and the six-lane road along the Malieveld. The counter-demonstrators brought a sound system with them, for music and shouting out cries like ‘Allah Akbar’.
There was a moment of turmoil when Pegida foreman Edwin Wagensveld ostentatiously tore pages from a Quran. That became too much for some of the counter-demonstrators, some broke through the police line and threw stones across the canal. Think politicians ordered the crowd to calm down and when Wagensveld and his fellow demonstrator had left a few minutes later, peace returned.
Protect freedom of expression
Mayor Jan van Zanen had previously distanced himself from actions that unnecessarily provoke or deliberately hurt people, but according to him the law offers no scope to prohibit the demonstration. As mayor, it is his job to facilitate the constitutional right to freedom of expression and demonstration, he writes in a statement.
Van Baarle is not impressed. He points to European rulings that classify the destruction of religious writings as a hate crime. He thinks that Van Zanen should not have allowed this to be possible in his city. “In addition, other Dutch mayors have decided differently in similar cases.”
That’s right. For example, in 2021, the then mayor of Eindhoven, John Jorritsma, decided to ban a Pegida demonstration. The group had announced that it wanted to destroy a Koran and the mayor feared disturbances.
The Hague makes a different assessment
Under strict conditions, a mayor can move or limit an announced demonstration. For example, when riots threaten to occur, or when public health is endangered. In Eindhoven, a demonstration by Pegida once got so out of hand that the riot police had to intervene.
While Jorritsma limited the right to demonstrate at the time, The Hague made a different assessment this time. The municipality only expected a small group of demonstrators and Pegida itself also speaks of ‘two or three’ people.
It is also contrary to municipal rules to burn the Quran in The Hague. “We’ll have to burn that later, in a garden or a meadow or something,” said Pegida spokesperson Wagensveld.
In order to voice a dissenting opinion, Denk decided to go to the embassy himself. “We want to show Muslims that there are also Dutch people who distance themselves from this behavior of Pegida,” says Van Baarle in advance. He is not afraid that a counter-action will put things on edge. “I call on everyone to behave with dignity and respect and to obey the law.”
Increased threat level due to Quran burnings
The Swedish security service raises the threat of terror in the country to the second highest level. According to Swedish media, the threat has increased due to the Koran burnings in the country and the anger that has arisen in Islamic countries.
Threat level has now been increased from 3 to 4 on a scale of 1 to 5. That represents a high threat. The threat was last this high in Sweden in 2016.
The Koran burnings in Stockholm led to fierce reactions from international leaders, but also to major protests in Muslim countries. Swedish flags were burned and the Swedish embassy was set on fire in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. According to the Swedish newspaper The evening paper terror group Al-Qaeda has called for revenge attacks against Stockholm.
There have also been Koran burnings in Denmark and, according to the government, this also led to a change in the security situation there. That is why border controls have been temporarily tightened. Sweden has done that before.
Does burning or tearing up a Koran fall under freedom of speech?
Demonstrators in The Hague want tearing up the Koran in public space to become a criminal offence. Is that a positive idea? The theological team responds.
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