What Happens When a Quran Is Burned Demonstrates a Government’s Capacity for Liberty

Current Iraqi rage against the burning of a Quran in Sweden and in Denmark violates both liberty and Islamic teachings — and shows that freedom of expression is sometimes globally curtailed for fear that populist governments in some predominantly Muslim countries will let their mobs run amok, burning embassies or attacking those perceived to be offending Islam, anywhere in the world.



From a religious perspective, revenge is a pre-Islamic jahili practice that Islam prohibited, preaching tolerance and acceptance of others in its stead.
The current spate of Quran burning — pitting freedom of expression against retaliation for perceived offense — did not start in Sweden, but in Detroit, Mich., 13 years ago and has occurred many times since.Most recently, when Salwan Momika, an Iraqi Christian refugee in Sweden, publicly burned a copy of the Quran and then planned to do so a second time, the Iraqi government demanded his repatriation and then expelled the Swedish ambassador, showing that Baghdad operates according to a tribal code, not the law.
No law in Iraq prohibits the burning of any book, religious or otherwise. Even if there were such a law, no Iraqi court had tried Momika in absentia, found him guilty, and asked the government to demand his repatriation. Baghdad incorrectly believes that it has power over Momika simply because he is an Iraqi national.
Iraq apparently also imagines Sweden in its image: If Sweden is not ready to send the Iraqi burner of the Quran back to Baghdad, then it should discipline him and teach him how to respect what the Iraqi government wants him to respect.
The Iraqi state, and many of its citizens, clearly do not understand liberty.
Governments cannot force citizens to respect or disrespect anything or anyone. Perhaps it is the lack of understanding of liberty among these Iraqis that has been obstructing the growth of democracy in Iraq, ever since America toppled the country’s dictator in 2003.Outside Iraqi tribal behavior toward Sweden, there is nothing in Islam that prohibits the burning of any book, including the Quran. In fact, the Islamic way of disposing of the Quran, for any reason, is to burn it. That is what Islam’s third caliph, Osman (d. 656), did when he canonized a copy of the Quran, which holds his name to this day, and burned the rest.
This reaction is clearly not over legalities but rather perceived offenses, disrespect. Even so, the reaction does not comport with the Quran itself. The holy book of Islam teaches Muslims to leave non-Muslims alone, as in, live and let live. “Say, O you infidels,” says Quran 109, quoting Prophet Muhammad debating faith with non-believers, “I will never worship what you worship. You will never worship what I worship. You have your religion, and I have mine.”Similarly, Quran 35:18 teaches agency, that every human is responsible for their own actions. Prophet Muhammad, and the Muslims after him, must verbally warn non-believers of hell fire in the afterlife, but are not responsible for their sins: “No soul burdened with sin will bear the burden of another.” Also, Quran 18:29 says: “Whoever wills let them believe, and whoever wills let them disbelieve.”

The Quran clearly endorses, and rather encourages, liberty and the freedom of belief or disbelief.

Disbelief may include disrespecting God, Prophet Muhammad, and the Quran. Choices that humans make in this life decide their fates in the afterlife.

This free choice means that predominantly Muslim countries that engage in social engineering are violating Islamic tenets as well as logic, a violation that they cover with the theory of cultural relativism — that no country should be held to a global standard of liberty and human rights.

When the world criticized Doha for banning LGBTQ displays and actions and restricting alcohol at the 2022 World Cup, cultural relativists counter-argued that Qatar has its own local traditions, and that the rest of the world should respect them.

When Sweden criticized Tehran for suppressing women’s right to not wear the hijab in public, Iran responded that such issues were sovereign and not open for outside opinion.

Yet when Sweden allowed protesters to burn whichever holy books they pleased, in line with that country’s long tradition of liberty and freedom of expression, both Iran and Qatar joined Iraq in denouncing Stockholm for disrespecting Islam.

To these governments, liberty is not a universal right. Rather, what is universal for them is that every human on the planet, Muslim or not, must treat Islam in ways that these governments prescribe. Otherwise, these governments will cry “Islamophobia” and “hate,” and counter with their own hate — and sometimes violence.

Save for instigation to violence, freedom of expression is not bound by any restrictions. In fact, challenging the ideas of others — including offensively — is at the heart of the debate of our species, called “sapiens” mainly due to its uniquely argumentative nature.

Censorship belongs to the Dark Ages and has no place in our time and age. Sweden did well by standing its ground in defense of liberty and freedom. The free world, while perhaps deploring insults and provocations, should rally to its side.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow Hussain on Twitter @hahussain


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