Repeated acts of Islamophobia in Europe over the past few days vividly illustrate the fact that the continent has a serious problem as anti-Muslim hatemongers insult the symbols and figures held dear by over 1.5bn people across the world.
The latest outrage occurred outside a mosque in Denmark on Friday, perpetrated by Rasmus Paludan, a provocative far-right figure with a history of spewing anti-Muslim hate. This individual burnt a copy of the Holy Quran, a vile act he had also committed a few days earlier outside the Turkish embassy in Sweden.
In yet another recent incident, an individual who heads the Dutch chapter of Pegida, a German neofascist outfit, desecrated the Holy Book in the Netherlands. For Paludan, meanwhile, the ‘justification’ for the outrage was Turkey’s objections over Sweden and Finland’s admission to Nato. However, the true intentions appear to be to insult Islam and its sacred symbols. This is, unfortunately, not the first time Islamic symbols have been targeted in a hateful way in Europe, as the blasphemous caricatures and Charlie Hebdo episodes show.
The response by most European leaders and civil society is that while the acts are condemnable, the principle of free speech prevents them from acting against the perpetrators. This position holds no water. Firstly, Europe has a history of anti-Islamic sentiment. For example, much of European literature during the Middle Ages was full of grotesque Islamophobic content. In the modern world, it seems that the same prejudices of Christian Europe have clearly seeped into secular Europe.
Moreover, Europeans themselves have proved that free speech is not absolute, as the Holocaust-denial laws show. If raising questions about a historical event can result in fines and jail terms on the continent, then surely those who attack the religious symbols of Islam, and indeed all faiths, must be made to face penalties. It is also true that by attacking Islamic symbols, extremists seek to legitimise violence and hate crimes against Muslims.
As opposed to the questionable European approach, some in the West are striving to build bridges. For example, the Canadian government has just named its first adviser to combat Islamophobia. The welcome move proves that Islamophobia is not just an abstract concept, but a violent reality millions of Muslims the world over face. It is this very violence that rightist hatemongers in Europe and elsewhere are seeking to normalise by attacking Islamic symbols.
There should be a serious debate in Europe about Islamophobic hate crimes, such as the Quran-burning stunts, and legal action is required to prevent further such outrages. It is also a fact that Muslim extremists and terrorist outfits are emboldened by these hateful acts. Europe needs to counter this rampant Islamophobia, instead of shielding these mediaeval prejudices under the guise of free speech.