Rabbi: Attack on Christian faith does not seem to bother Christians much
Laura Hendriken-Bassa, RD
The Syrian-Swedish Ahmad A. was given permission by Swedish authorities to burn a Torah and a Bible last week. The Jewish community strongly disapproved of the protest. Christians barely made themselves heard. Why is that?
Two Quran burnings in Sweden recently led to furious reactions in Muslim-majority countries. In Iraq, for instance, the Swedish embassy was stormed, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Turkish television that "arrogant Westerners will yet learn that insulting Muslims has nothing to do with freedom of expression".
The Syrian-Swedish Ahmad planned a protest against Quran burnings last week. He received permission from Swedish authorities to burn a Torah and a Bible at the Israeli embassy in Stockholm last Saturday. The announced action led to much outrage in Israel. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir called the plan "anti-Semitic".
On second thought, Ahmad refrained from his action. "If I set fire to the Torah, and someone else to the Bible, and another to the Quran, it will be war here," said Ahmad.
While a Quran or Torah burning leads to much ado in the Muslim and Jewish world, the Christian community seems to have little reaction to the announced Bible burning. Why is that? And is destroying a Bible, Torah, or Quran just allowed? Three experts give their views.
The Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs reacts indignantly to the burning of religious scriptures. "It is the epitome of intolerance and hatred. The whole phenomenon of burnings is wrong, whether it is the Torah, the Quran or the Bible."
The Quran burnings in Sweden have already done damage, according to Jacobs. "Most Muslims are peaceful, but this is not recognised by many activists. There is a huge generalisation, as if all Muslims are aggressive and cause whining. Burning a Quran insults Muslims, and that is really not allowed."
Christians seem to turn a blind eye to Bible burning. Rabbi Jacobs doesn't know why. "Years ago, Christians were murdered in Iraq by Islamic State. An Armenian congregation in the eastern part of the Netherlands held a meeting for that with a silent march. I had been asked to speak. I then expressed my surprise that a small Christian community took to the streets while large churches kept their mouths shut. It affects us Jews when we hear of anti-Semitism. Christians, however, seem to care much less when their faith is attacked. I don't know what the reason is for that."
Cees Rentier, director of the Dutch "Gospel and Muslims Foundation", calls the burnings a "typical clash between Eastern and Western culture". Rentier: "In the West, burning a religious scripture is considered freedom of expression. The Swedish government gave permission for the protest in advance. In Eastern honour culture, that approval is seen as provocative and really not understood. There, people think the Swedish authorities are thereby taking a stand against Islam themselves."
Rentier also notes that in the Western world, an announced Bible burning does not meet with as much resistance. "The West has no culture of honour. And most of the aversion to Christianity comes from Western soil itself. Christians in the West have become accustomed to the Biblical message being mocked and hardly react to it anymore."
In the world of Islam, however, it is different. "Already during Muhammad's performance, you see that whoever insults the prophet is killed. Public mockery of Mohammed or the Quran has always been life-threatening," Rentier said.
So can burning a Bible, Koran, or Torah just happen in the West? That is hard to say, according to Dr Teunis van Kooten. According to the legal expert, who specialises in religion and law as a lawyer and works as a university lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Religion and Law at the Free University in Amsterdam, freedom of expression comes into play here on the one hand. That fundamental right is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, among others.
"On the other hand, you have criminal law, such as the prohibition of discrimination and insult. Believers who feel that book burning harms them can go to the civil courts to have it banned. That is -legally speaking- the area of tension here. In principle, you should be allowed to burn a book to express your opinion. "
Each country is allowed to have its own rules within a certain bandwidth in this, says Van Kooten. "In the Netherlands, that right to expression is limited by criminal law in which it is forbidden to discriminate and insult groups. Consider, for example, the court case involving the Dutch politician Geert Wilders over a statement in which he called for "fewer Moroccans" in the country. The judge decided that he had committed group insult. The government is allowed to restrict freedom of speech."
According to Van Kooten, it is important to distinguish between religion and believers. "You may find a religion reprehensible, and you may make that clear, but followers of a religion as a group may not be insulted just like that. That is tricky with a Quran burning, though, because is this an insult to religion or is it insulting its followers?"
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