The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Western countries that value free speech and expression face a tricky dilemma when it comes to protests aimed at a specific religion.

In June, Stockholm’s Eid al-Adha festivities deviated from their typical course of celebration and unity, descending into global controversy. Salwan Momika, an Iraqi refugee residing in Sweden, ignited a copy of the Quran, sparking not just flames but a volatile international discourse. He claimed the act was a protest against Islam and its tenets—a declaration that rapidly reverberated across the world, eliciting condemnation from Muslim-majority countries and triggering waves of protests.

Within a month, the UN Human Rights Council weighed in. While it passed a resolution denouncing manifestations of religious hatred, the decision was anything but unanimous. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)—comprising 19 of the 47 members—spearheaded a resolution, winning 28 votes in favor. Twelve members, primarily European, dissented, arguing that the sanctity of free expression could sometimes necessitate enduring deeply uncomfortable, even offensive, opinions—including those against religious symbols.

In the ensuing weeks, Sweden faced echoes of the event; it spread like wildfire to Denmark as well. Despite the uproar, Sweden remained resolute, refusing to alter its free speech laws to include penalties for blasphemy. The OIC met this obstinacy with further disillusionment, accusing both Sweden and Denmark of complicity in spreading defamatory views about Islam, and mulling over subtler strategies to mitigate tensions.

So we’re compelled to ask: Is there merit to these accusatory sentiments? Are Western nations inadvertently enabling discrimination?

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) tackles this contentious issue in Article 19. It champions the right to hold and express opinions but also lays out circumstances—such as national security and public morality—under which these rights can be curtailed. But what constitutes “morality”? In the vast expanse of human rights, this remains a nebulous and culture-dependent term, one that might have led to the present international schism.

Article 20 of the ICCPR goes further, requiring states to enact laws that prohibit any form of incitement to hatred based on race, religion, or nationality. These provisions mirror the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which forbids discrimination and extols respect for cultural diversity—ideals apparently in conflict with the actions, or lack thereof, of Sweden and Denmark.

These countries find themselves at a moral and legal crossroads. The tension between safeguarding freedom of expression and preventing religious defamation seems, at first glance, insurmountable. Citing an ideology of impartiality, Sweden has resisted changes to its free speech laws. But history offers a cautionary tale: In 2015, terrorists attacked the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for its portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed—a seismic event that was a byproduct of France’s unwavering commitment to free speech.

While it’s essential to not conflate extremism with entire religious or ethnic groups, the sobering truth remains: inaction has consequences, some of which can manifest in loss of life. Governments bear a significant responsibility in calibrating their laws to prevent violence stemming from societal discord. In this context, Western countries, faced with very real public safety concerns, have a difficult decision ahead.

Complicating matters further, a misstep in handling this volatile situation could jeopardize diplomatic relations, particularly with OIC member states, who have long protested against perceived insults to Islam. The current climate, it appears, is less than conducive for amicable international relations between the Nordic countries and the broader European community.

Given these complex dynamics, it behooves these countries to adopt a coherent strategy— one that not only seeks to mollify international Muslim sentiment but also serves as a testament to their commitment to upholding both the ICCPR and the EU Charter in a balanced and comprehensive manner. Striking this balance is not about ranking one right above another; it’s about pragmatically safeguarding the well-being of societies in their entirety.

Rafsi Albar is a law student at Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia with a focus on International Law. He is also a teaching assistant in Administrative Law, conducts various public interest legal research, and is also the Editor of Juris Gentium Law Review, the country's foremost student law journal.