The great German writer Heinrich Heine famously observed in his 1821 stage play “Almansor,” set in Spain during the Inquisition, that “wherever books are burned, they will ultimately burn people.” Nearly a century after his death, the Nazis apparently took Heine’s dictum to heart, staging public book-burning ceremonies that were accompanied by the arrest, brutalization, deportation, and finally, extermination of the regime’s enemies, foremost among them the Jews of Germany.
Both Heine’s insight and the range of books burned by the Nazis—children’s titles like the wonderful “Emil and the Detectives” by Erich Kastner, Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I classic “All Quiet on the Western Front,” novels by Jewish writers like Franz Kafka and Max Brod, works by proscribed thinkers such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and, of course, Heine himself—cemented the notion in liberal minds that restrictions upon freedom of speech and conscience are inextricably tied to the most grotesque abuses of human rights.
In Sweden, it is the religious books regarded as sacred by their followers that are being lined up for the bonfires of activists who insist that in setting them alight, they are acting in defense of fundamental freedoms. In January, a provocateur named Rasmus Paludan burned a copy of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm, resulting in fury across the Muslim world and potentially jeopardizing Sweden’s bid to join the NATO defense alliance, of which Turkey is also a member. Earlier this month, the act was repeated by Salwan Momika, a 37-year-old Christian refugee from Iraq, who burned the Quran and then stomped on its smoldering pages for good measure.
In Europe, this debate has been heavily colored by the continent’s experience with Islamist militancy over the past 20 years. The context was set in 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad, in violation of the Islamic principle that the founder of the faith should never be represented in artistic form.
Not so with book burnings. These are acts of destruction that once more turn Heine’s maxim into reality by sending the message that in burning your sacred texts, we are declaring our intentions towards you. Given that incitement to genocide or ethnic cleansing can never be a legitimate component of democratic debate, the courts can confidently proscribe its advocates without creating a wider precedent. That is what the Swedish authorities must do now.
Produced in association with Jewish News Syndicate
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