All religions are sacred. We must respect them and speak clearly about it, either it is own religion or that of others. In all debate and dialogue, we must do it in such ways and contexts that are respectful to all. If we have critical opinions about certain dogma and tradition of other religions, and also of own religion, we must express them cautiously and choose the situations for doing so carefully, sometimes only discussing issues internally rather than in public, realizing that many issues about religion and faith are sensitive.
Recently, Sweden has come into difficulties with Muslims and other faithful at home and in foreign countries because some extremists have burnt the holy Quran. According to the Swedish laws, it is allowed to do so, provided the police have given permission about time and place. However, most of the correct and quite formal Swedes would be against it, but legally such actions are interpreted to be within the laws of freedom of expression – in bad taste and wrong, but within the law.
Earlier, there were blasphemy paragraphs, criminalizing such actions. Those laws were mostly applied against people within own religion, and in Sweden almost all would be Christians, a few Jews, and hardly any Muslims or members of other religions. It should be noted that the Church of Sweden was a government church until year 2000, and it had control over church laws, and influence over secular laws, too, indeed until the beginning of the 19th century, and sometimes much longer. Still, more than fifty percent of the Swedes are members of the former state church.
There have been controversies in the church over several modernization issues, such as about women’s right to abortion, and there are still people who object to the liberal laws based on religious and moral foundations. It should also be noted that most of the loyal Swedish citizens are particularly law abiding, even defending laws that they individually would be against. On the other hand, Sweden has a higher crime rate in certain fields than its neighbouring countries, mostly related to gang shootings, often involving young people in challenged suburbs with high numbers of immigrants. The country has very generous refugee and immigration policies, and about twenty percent of the population of about ten million are today of immigrant backgrounds.
The openness to immigration has to do with most Swedes feeling that they have an obligation to show moral leadership and fairness at home and abroad, including playing an active role regarding international peace issues, disarmament, development aid, human rights, and more – it being the land of the legendary UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who served from 1953-1961, when he died in a plane crash on duty dealing with the Congo crisis. Today, there is a right turn in Swedish politics and many of the liberal policies are questioned. The gang crimes remain a serious problem, without any solutions in sight. In general, we may say that Sweden went a bit too far in some of its liberal policies, in good spirit but still too far.
The sad Quran burnings have some connection to the other criminality, but are also separate, related to small extremist groups, with their own agendas, perhaps drawing attention to themselves, not any serious issues. Last week, the police had given permission to a person to hold a manifestation in a central location in the capital of Stockholm, but no permission to burn any holy book. The manifestation did not take place and the applicant said he had wanted to draw attention to the issues of burning of holy books, including the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah, but not burn any holy books himself. Sadly, Swedish media yesterday reported that the police have received a new application about a Quran burning in Stockholm.
It should be added that there have been several counter-demonstrations in Sweden after the recent Quran burning. Demonstrators have argued that burning holy books and scriptures is wrong and must be stopped; the country is put in bad light when it happens and causes negative rather than positive relations between people, countries, and faithful of all religions. Most non-religious people, too, would find it morally wrong to burn books that are sacred to people. Furthermore, most people in the West and elsewhere would be against the burning or banning of any books, referring to negative historical experiences.
I believe the existing laws in question in Sweden and other countries must be changed. However, it will probably take a year or more before it can pass in parliament and become law, provided the parliamentarians will indeed change it, which I believe they will. In the meantime, it ought to be possible to stop it, relating it to existing laws, which say, inter alia, that permission to hold manifestations and demonstrations can only be given if the police can guarantee the security and safety of demonstrators as well as the general public. Also, there are laws against incitement to unrest, hate crimes, and expressing racial and other insults to or about groups.
Norway, with similar laws to Sweden, recently used the rule of not being able to guarantee safety and security to decline permission to a manifestation in Oslo. In Denmark, they seem not to allow manifestations in central places in the cities. In Finland, burning anything in public and crowded places is not allowed, taking care of the issue before it becomes a problem for the burning of holy books. If it is possible, some form of decree can be issued in Sweden and in other countries until new laws are in place, or, perhaps new guidelines on how to interpret the existing laws.
Again, it should be underlined that most Swedish citizens most likely find the current laws wrong. Often, people consider it a big-city issue while people in smaller towns and cities don’t have any incidents. Generally, the relatively high crime rate, often caused by fast urbanization and modernization over many decades, and a high influx of refugees and immigrants, has changed the country, creating challenges for locals and foreigners.
Sweden is an advanced country technologically and in other ways, yet, also with high competitiveness, and thus some people fall outside mainstream society. Many secondary school students, sometimes above twenty percent, graduate from school without passing the final exam. They end up with scant possibilities for further training and the possibility to enter the labor market; sadly, such youth may end up as permanent recipients of government allowances, outside mainstream society, often getting into substance abuse, crime, and other anti-social activities.
Looking at it from the outside, we may wonder why the otherwise advanced Swedish education, work, and social system could allow these things to happen, indeed why integration policies for immigrants were not better. Also, we may question why the liberal laws about the burning of holy books, seen as freedom of expression, could indeed be made into law by parliament. We can only pray and hope that the issues will be revisited and solved soonest.
I believe the burning of holy books and other scriptures are signs of social and existential problems in the otherwise great country of Sweden. Instead of only criticizing the country for these issues, religious and other groups may offer dialogue and advice. We should admit that even the most advanced countries in the world sometimes need to be more humble and listen better to others, yes, also to people in poor and less developed countries. Let us all be open to advice – and indeed learn to defend what is sacred.