Contrasts in hate speech | Sunday Observer

Contrasts in hate speech

9 July, 2023
Barack Obama-Narendra Modi-Nirmala Sitharaman
Barack Obama-Narendra Modi-Nirmala Sitharaman

If the Swedes and Danes are allowed to burn the Koran and spit on it why is the world’s conscience silent? There is much that we in Sri Lanka and our neighbours in India are told to answer for when we are perceived as being intolerant of Muslims, and sometimes other minority races, of course.

The former US President Barack Obama recently upbraided the Indian Prime Minister saying that India should not trample on the rights of the Muslims. Obama was later totally demolished by the Indian Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, who said words to the effect “Can a person like him who randomly bombed Muslims in Syria and other countries tell us about Muslims?”

Obama set himself up to be dismissed in this way because he was being utterly hypocritical. Here is a person who personally signed approvals for drone attacks in Pakistan that resulted in heavy damage to civilians, killing young children as well, and all of this would have been written off as collateral damage.

Obama’s self-anointed role, therefore, as a champion for Muslim rights all over the world appeared not just hypocritical, but also hilarious. The Indian Finance Minister basically opined, the gall, and she was right.

Of course, Obama’s rationale would probably be that his attacks on Muslims or his drone warfare was justifiable as it was for the cause of the US defending itself, and, therefore, justifies the collateral damage with children being killed. He wouldn’t be able to trot out this lame excuse even, on those so-called preemptive attacks in Somalia that he ordered which resulted in several civilian deaths as well.


But it’s more than a bit odd to say the very least that Obama or anybody else of any prominence in the West doesn’t have anything to say about the Koran burning antics of certain Swedish and Danish politicians.

It has become a Scandinavian thing. This writer was able to see the video of the Danish politician, some sort of isolated far-right figure, disrespecting the Koran.

He gives a great deal of pre-publicity to his antics and makes sure a crowd is gathered at the city centre or some chosen location. When the crowd assembles, he starts casting various demeaning remarks about the Koran and then suddenly whips out some pages from the holy book — tears these pages — and proceeds to deposit copious quantities of his spittle on these pages by licking them, while making further demeaning remarks about the book.

He then proceeds to set fire to the Koran, and there seems to be an admiring crowd, though there are some protestors that try to get close to the proceedings and cause some disruption, but are beaten back.

What is the meaning of allowing this type of blatant provocation of Muslims by setting fire to their most sacred tome in the public? This should qualify as an act of hate under any circumstances, and so what happened to the concept of hate speech?

Apparently, these acts are permissible under the so-called ultra-liberal Scandinavian free expression laws.

The video later cuts to scenes in which the politician so-called is seen being interviewed in his office. The premises are in the outskirts of Copenhagen and the man is seen saying he is a target as if he doubted that he would be. He would have known what he is getting into when he began setting fire to copies of the Koran.


Denmark was also the country that gave birth to the Charlie Hebdo controversy in which the likeness of the prophet was depicted in a cartoon, enraging Muslims because any depiction of Prophet Mohammed is forbidden in the religion.

But this type of provocation was also justified under laws of free expression, and there was nobody leave alone Obama who protested against any of these toxic portrayals.

Be it in this country or in any other country, any persecution by any community or any person of a minority community is abominable and is to be condemned. Such condemnation has been forthcoming previously from this columnist as well as many others who have written in mainstream and other media.

But condemnations are blanket and the needless provocation of Muslims in countries such as Denmark and Sweden is utterly condemnable.

What is even more condemnable is that there are no good conscience advocates for fair treatment of persons in the public spaces, condemning these actions or calling them what they are — which is blatant hate-speech, or expressions of hate.

If there are Danes or Swedes who feel they cannot agree with the Islamic faith, they have other ways of expressing that sentiment without having to needlessly offend Muslims by burning their holy book, a heinous act. Besides that, the act blatantly provokes violence and there could be a spiralling cycle of attacks resultant from these types of precipitate bad actions. People could get killed and there could be carnage in the ensuing reaction, in other words. It’s all unnecessary and should focus the attention of the public and politicians in the countries concerned.

There have been incidents of Muslim baiting in this country and in rare instances they were carried out to lynch persons. These have been righty condemned, but there is also no tolerance of apparently symbolic acts such as the burning of the Muslim holy book. This is a sign of civilisation in our nation, even though there are some misguided elements that have been guilty in the past of mistreating minorities.

Unfortunately, this cannot be said for the intellectual conscience of the West because there has been no condemnation of the Koran burning provocations in Sweden and in Denmark. Barack Obama put his foot in it, when he condemned the Indian Government and Premier Modi for the treatment of Muslims in India when Obama with his war record which has been condemned by rights’ organisations should have been the last person to speak on the matter the way he did.


It is heartening to note that the UK has denied entry to the Koran burning Danish politician, but this should not only be on the grounds of a threat to the peace, but also on the grounds of hate speech. Hate speech has no place in this country and we can be proud we got those priorities right even though there are still those that carry out acts of hate against minorities.

But these are as of now, at least few and far between, and in any event there is no blanket go-ahead for hate speech as seems to be the reprehensible state of affairs in Sweden and Denmark. Even in Sweden, however, the planned second Koran burning stunt of the Danish individual was not allowed on the grounds that it’s a threat to security, but that’s not enough, the act must be condemned on matters of principle.

There is no place for hate anywhere least of all in the public space. Trotting out a free speech justification for hate speech is akin to the promotion of Nazism. Look what happened in the heart of Europe. The escalation of hate speech against the Jews ended up in the holocaust, and acts of violence that are condemned now in the most uncertain terms in Europe. But that’s after the event. Hate speech must be condemned when it is happening and not decades-later when untold damage has been done.

Holocaust denial is a crime, laudably, in Europe today and any person can be jailed for taking such a position, but there isn’t condemnation of Koran burning? There certainly is something amiss in that arrangement, and though this is not a Muslim majority country, it is obvious that people here condemn in the strongest possible terms the heinous act of Koran burning which disrespects a religion that counts millions of followers in all parts of the world.