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Qur’an Burning: A Misuse of Free Expression?

Qur’an Burning: A Misuse of Free Expression?

Categories: Latest News

Thursday August 03 2023

Following a recent string of Qur’an burning incidents across the Scandinavian region under the banner of free expression, followed by numerous governments across Europe, including our very own UK Government, refusing to label such incidents as hate crimes, it is worth assessing the burning of the Qur’an through the lens of free expression itself and see whether it meets the stipulations of what constitutes free expression.

To begin, in 1948, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) declared freedom of expression to be an intrinsic human right. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.

However, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2018), on the other hand, distinguishes circumstances in which freedom of expression may be restricted, stating that:

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”.

Such words demonstrate that, while freedom of expression is recognised as a fundamental human right in law, regulation is required to ensure that intolerance does not cause harm.

Indeed, the human right of freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitutions of democratic governments throughout Europe as a result of the ECHR and UDHR. Nevertheless, along with this security come “special duties and responsibilities”, and certain actions may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions for respect of the rights or reputation of others” and “for the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals”. Thus, within the context of the ECHR and UDHR, the right to freely express oneself is protected, with the recognition that expressions with the potential to undermine the well-being of others may be subject to restrictions.

As a result, it can be established that freedom of expression can be limited if, for example, an individual expresses beliefs or actions that incite racial or religious hatred and potentially violate the rights of others. However, the regulator must demonstrate that the restrictions imposed are “proportionate” and “appropriate” for the expression in question. As a result, if the opinions voiced harm the fundamental rights of other communities, freedom of expression may be limited. Indeed, this is the sole occasion in which regulators have the authority to limit the freedoms of thought, religion, and belief.

To determine whether Qur’an burnings breach freedom of expression as per its own stipulations, we must analyse the potential consequences of such actions. The Qur’an, for millions of Muslims, is not just a book but a sacred religious text that holds immense significance and reverence. Burning the Qur’an can be seen as an act of deliberate disrespect and incitement of religious hatred, which could infringe upon the rights and beliefs of the Muslim community. In such a scenario, the burning of the Qur’an goes beyond a mere expression of opinion and can be considered a harmful act that poses a threat to religious and social cohesion.

Therefore, it can be argued that Qur’an burnings constitute a misuse of freedom of expression, as they go beyond the realm of expressing an opinion and encroach upon the rights and beliefs of others. Indeed, in response to incidents in Sweden, the UN rights council approved a resolution that urged countries to “address, prevent, and prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred” in spite of a divided vote that saw Western countries dissent and vote against the resolution.

The principle of free expression carries with it an inherent responsibility and a reliance on the judicious application of common sense. It is a beacon of our liberties, but, like any beacon, its application is most effective when guided by reason and prudence. Just as shouting “fire” in a crowded cinema, despite being an example of freedom of expression, is universally recognised as an act of recklessness due to the potential harm it may unleash, so too does the act of burning the Qur’an lack purpose and foresight.

The essence of free expression is not an unchecked licence to create chaos but rather an avenue through which ideas, opinions, and criticisms can be exchanged constructively. To wield this right with wisdom is to recognise that it is not merely the freedom to speak that defines us but also the wisdom to discern when silence may be the more prudent path. In the delicate balance between free expression and societal harmony, it is the tempered application of common sense that truly elevates the discourse and preserves the integrity of our shared liberties.

Ultimately, while freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, it is not absolute and can be restricted under specific circumstances. Qur’an burnings, due to their potential to incite religious hatred and infringe upon the rights of the Muslim community, may warrant such restrictions. To uphold the true spirit of freedom of expression, it is crucial for governments and regulators to assess the consequences of such actions and act responsibly to protect the rights and dignity of all communities. By doing so, they can strike a balance between free expression and preventing harm caused by its misuse.


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