Book burning must be banished from political discourse
There is something frighteningly true in the observation of the 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine, which was prompted by a burning of the Qur’an in 1493 in Granada, as he warned humanity: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.” These chilling words are now engraved in the ground of Berlin’s Opernplatz, commemorating the horrific burning in 1933 of 25,000 books decreed by the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to be “un-German.” Not long afterward came the Holocaust and its mass murder of millions by the Nazis.
Recent incidents in Sweden and Denmark have highlighted that there are those who still refuse to heed Heine’s cautionary words. In their distorted view, they still believe that this abject act is an acceptable and legitimate expression of freedom of speech. Well, it is not. It is simply an extreme form of incitement against what is held sacrosanct by others, and it should be universally regarded as a hate crime.
In the first incident, an Iraqi Christian immigrant burned Islam’s holy book outside a Stockholm mosque on — of all days — the major Muslim festival of Eid Al-Adha. In the second case, a Swedish national backed off after threatening to burn the Torah, the Jewish holy book, in front of the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm, claiming that he was not interested in setting fire to the holy book, but was merely testing the Swedish authorities to see whether or not they would enforce the law selectively regarding the burning of religious texts. That the authorities should not enforce the law selectively enjoys a broad consensus, but this does not extend to consenting to the burning of any book considered holy by any religion or belief system, or more generally any book at all.
Not only is freedom of expression not absolute, but the burning of someone else’s holy or deeply meaningful book is not an expression of opinion or part of any acceptable debate in a civilized society between disagreeing individuals or groups. It is simply an act of aggression against what a book represents to others, an attack on their beliefs and on a crucial aspect of their identity. It is an attempt to demean, to establish a sense of hierarchy, to instill fear and even provoke a reaction that would serve as an excuse to accelerate the marginalization of whatever group considers that text to be sacred.
While these two Swedish cases were apparently the work of individuals, in recent years book burning has become something of a despicable political act perpetrated mainly by right-wing, anti-migrant politicians and activists. More worryingly, in some cases it has been officially sanctioned. In 2010, Terry Jones, known for his extreme Islamophobic views and slurs, burned a copy of the Qur’an in his tiny Florida church, shamefully hiding behind the First Amendment. And earlier this year, Rasmus Paludan, the far-right Danish-Swedish politician and lawyer, set fire to a copy of the Muslim holy book in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm to gain maximum publicity for his anti-migrant policies. There are those who dismiss these vile acts as those of negligible characters who are desperate for attention. Be that as it may, it is the lack of a firm response by their respective communities, or even the lack of any legal framework for clamping down on these actions, that makes those communities and countries complicit through their inaction.
It is an extreme form of incitement against what is held sacrosanct by others, and it should be universally regarded as a hate crime.
In some European countries, burning a holy book is considered a hate crime and is punishable by law. Criminalizing such behavior as a tool to impose tolerance might be seen as counterintuitive in any civilized society where there is an expectation of respect for other people’s beliefs, values and symbols, instilled from an early age at school and through other instruments of socialization, and where such respect becomes part of the society’s DNA and need not be enforced. However, with the emergence of multicultural societies where the required tolerance cannot always be taken for granted, moves to curtail hate crime that are supported by law have become increasingly necessary.
Using the freedom of expression argument to defend the burning of books or, more generally, offending other people’s beliefs is a lousy and disingenuous response. Yes, freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that is generally enshrined in international law. Disagreeing with others’ ideas and beliefs and promoting your own is part and parcel of freedom of expression, but this has nothing in common with the sheer provocative vandalism of burning books.
Living in diverse societies brings with it proven benefits, among them prosperity, appreciating the value of tolerance and the broadening of one’s horizons; but it also poses challenges that need to be addressed with conviction, openness, attentiveness, flexibility and sensitivity in order to overcome them, but not with acts of violence.
By burning books, one does not make them disappear, as they will long outlive those who burn them. To torch the written word is an extension of attempts to silence people and ideas, to censor them and pretend that a book’s content will disappear along with its physical destruction. There is, sadly, a long tradition of burning books, going at least as far back as 213 B.C., when Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of all philosophy and history books from states other than Qin. In the late 15th century, the Spanish Inquisition burned about 5,000 Arabic manuscripts; in the 16th century, copies of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible were incinerated by the Catholic Church; in 1683, several books by Thomas Hobbes and other authors were put to the flames at Oxford University; and the list goes on. In some cases, the burning of people did quickly follow.
In the toxic political environment and social turmoil we currently inhabit, which polarizes communities, burning books has become the weapon of opportunists who feed and thrive on division and discord by pushing their xenophobic agenda and putting the blame for all their society’s ills on those originating from other countries and subscribing to other faiths. It is a debased tool to build their power and influence and maintain their inflated egos.
This cynical exploitation of freedom of expression demands a legal, political and social response that will make burning books illegal, banishing the practice from political discourse before it can exacerbate the already fragile intercommunal relations we are witnessing in many liberal democracies, from where such inflammatory actions are threatening to spread.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.