In August, Sweden raised its terror threat alert level to “high” following a series of Quran burnings that have drawn widespread criticism in Muslim-majority countries.
The SÄPO (Sweden’s Security Force) announced the country entered in level 4 (of a maximum of 5), the highest since 2016. Recently, Islamist terror groups such as al-Shabab, al-Qaida and Hezbollah have called its followers around the world to take revenge for the desecration of the Muslim sacred book.
“There is certainly some fear” among the Swedish population, says Olof Edsinger, a theologian and cultural analyst. “But for most people life just goes on – although we are all encouraged to be on our guard”.
In answers to Evangelical Focus, the author and speaker who serves as General Secretary of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance, proposes to approach the debate around freedom of speech and religious freedom from a better perspective.
Olof Edsinger, General Secretary of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance.
Question. The government has stressed that there are no blasphemy laws in Sweden prohibiting the desecration of holy books, although not everything that is legal is appropriate. Do you agree?
Answer. Yes, I would certainly discourage anyone from burning a sacred book, not least from the perspective of Jesus’ instruction in the golden rule.
But I still think it’s important that we don’t legislate against blasphemy, as this seems to be a very slippery slope. Presently this is also the legal situation in Sweden.
Q. Some people in Sweden might feel that the international pushback from some Islamic countries such as not receiving the support from Turkey to join the NATO or the threat to Swedish embassies and businesses in other parts of the world, are not worth the cost of upholding freedom of speech in Sweden. That it would be better to ban Quran burnings and similar actions. What do you think?
A. Generally speaking, the understanding of the importance of religious freedom is not as strong in Sweden as it is around, for instance, equality between the sexes. This probably makes more people willing to sacrifice some aspects of religious freedom compared to other human rights.
As a Swedish Evangelical Alliance, however, we have taken a public stand against this kind of legislation for several reasons. The most important, at least on a principal level, is the fact that you can’t ban only Quran burnings. You will also have to ban the burning of other sacred texts.
But where do you draw the line? What about the books of the Church of Scientology? Or the Enlightenment philosophers, if you are a secular humanist? And also, what about stomping on a book? Or putting it in the toilet? There is no end to what you can do to desecrate a sacred text, and if all this is to be forbidden… we have a quite extensive blasphemy law in place!
Q. Every action perceived as anti-Muslim in Europe causes revenges in Muslim-majority countries. Local Christians there are targeted for being seen as enemies of Islam. What can Christians in Western Europe do in the face of this reality?
A. This is indeed a very sad fact. And it illustrates that the major problem in this context is (as so often) the reactions from the Muslim world – and not least its violence capital.
As Christian churches, we should make clear that we think burning of any sacred text is inappropriate, while defending the hard-won freedoms of the West.
Q. Freedom of speech and religious freedom are basic Human Rights rooted in Christian values. How can we promote them in a global context where religion is seen as a fundamental identity marker for people?
A. I think one way to do this is to point out that the West has become a free zone for the oppressed, also for those of Muslim origin. To simply point out that our freedoms are, after all, quite attractive to most religious minorities.
And we should also tell about our own history. We had religious wars earlier in our history, but religious tolerance proved to be a fruitful way forward. On this we have built our modern society – including our relative wealth.
Q. What else would you add to this debate?
A. As always, there are good arguments on both sides of this issue. But something is terribly wrong when totalitarian regimes – often oppressing their own people – are trying to force us to abandon our hard-won human rights.
With this said, the West needs to re-discover the nature of religious belief, including the fact that some things are actually sacred. Here we certainly have things to learn from the rest of the world.