August 5, 2023

When Freedom of Speech Emboldens Hate

After demonstrators burned copies of the Quran in Sweden and Denmark, some people took to social media to blame Jews for the desecration and resulting conflicts.

Two Scandinavian countries have made shocking headlines for allowing protestors to burn religious texts. In June, Swedish police permitted a man to burn a copy of the Quran outside a mosque.  This set off a flood of applications in Sweden and Denmark for similar approval to burn Qurans, Bibles, and, in one case, a Torah. Some of the applications for book burnings, it turns out, were publicity stunts seeking to provoke debate:  When does freedom of speech cross the line into hate speech?

While these incidents sparked anger and strained tensions between Sweden and Denmark and a number of Muslim-majority countries, readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that some people took to social media to implicate their favorite scapegoat — the Jews. 

As part of CyberWell’s ongoing monitoring efforts, our analysts identified numerous posts in English and Arabic across social media linking the desecration of sacred texts to antisemitic conspiracy theories. In this blog we lay out a few of the top narratives that gained traction.

Blaming Jews for Masterminding the Events

Some posts accused the Jews of orchestrating the recent incidents in general. One post claimed that the different outcomes between applications to burn the Quran versus applications to burn Christian and Jewish Bibles were evidence of Jewish interference. Indeed, the Quran was burned or defaced on several occasions, while the applications to burn Bibles turned out to be publicity stunts to protest the lenient laws. 

Translation: “One of the extremists burned the Holy Quran in Sweden a few days ago, and then announced that he would burn the Jewish Bible, but he backed down and burned the Quran again. Question:  Why did he back down from burning the Bible and undervalue the burning of the Quran? Answer: Because Jewish influence is so strong that it can subjugate the largest of states when it affects its [Jewish] values or people. As for the Islamic countries, they are so weak that an insignificant country like Sweden turns its back on dozens of Islamic countries and their regimes. Oh God, fix the plight of Muslims […]”.

Translation: “We hold the Jews fully responsible, as they are behind the burning of the Holy Quran in Sweden to divert attention from their attacks on Palestinian mosques and the desecration of the Holy Quran a few days ago, and you will not be able to deceive two billion Muslims with a tweet[.] You are the first and real enemy of the Quran, Muslims, and mankind.”

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

A harmful, fake document published in 1903 that continues to spread antisemitic hate, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion alleges that Jews plan to control the world and lays out their tactics to achieve this goal. One tactic is the use of sporting events to distract people from Jews’ plans for world domination. This served as “proof” for an antisemitic conspiracy theory emerging from Algeria during the World Cup

Antisemitic posts related to the Quran burnings claimed that the Jewish people instigated the desecration in order to provoke conflict between various groups as part of their plan for world control, per the Protocols.[1]

Translation: “The European Spring, the burning of the Quran and the Algerian shaheed, and what is happening in France, and before that in Britain and Spain, and now Brussels, and the several days of demonstrations in Sweden. I said it 100 times. I do not believe in coincidence; everything is meticulously planned for satanic goals […] I believe that our old friends were years ahead of the others.” 

The Facebook post above claims that a series of global upheavals, including the Quran burnings, are all part of the realization of the Jewish plan as laid out in the Protocols. 

The user also re-shared their own post from 2018, saying: “The story goes back to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is a whole plan. They must transform all the peoples on earth into [goyim], that is, small human herds, by breaking up societies into small fighting groups and making their countries into small, dispersed states, in which many will die from fighting and chaos, hunger, and homelessness, in addition, of course, to global climate change, which will eliminate livestock and agricultural wealth in many large parts of the world, leaving only half a billion out of 4 billion in the world, according to the plan, and they will be the best and the smartest people, and they will have the mental and physical control to implement their plan […].”

In the post below, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion aren’t specifically mentioned, but the tactics that they describe are given a modern-day update. This post alleges that Jews puppeteer a non-Jewish person to burn the Quran in order to achieve their goals without coming into open conflict with Muslims and Arabs.

Translation: “American Jews are known for their disloyalty like the Jews of Israel, so in order not to clash with Muslims and Arabs, they put an infidel in Sweden to burn a copy of the Quran so that there is no confrontation between the Jews of Israel and the Arabs and the Muslims.”

Blaming the Mossad for the Quran Desecrations

A number of posts accused the Israeli Mossad of orchestrating the Quran burnings in order to create conflict between Muslims and Christians.  The main proponents of this conspiracy theory are the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.  This claim intertwines Protocols tactics with the State of Israel into a larger conspiracy of global Jewish control through instigating conflict between different groups. Additional online conspiracy theories linking the Mossad with sowing discord include the theory that Israel caused 9/11

This TikTok video alone reached 771K views! Text in the video reads: “Revealing the connection between the Quran’s abuser in Sweden and the Mossad.” The video investigates the connection between the Quran burning in Sweden and the Mossad. It quotes alleged Iranian intelligence claiming that “It has verified information regarding working connections between Silwan Momika, who desecrated the Quran in Sweden, and the Israeli Mossad” (00:06-00:08). 

Defacing Holy Books: Free Speech or Hate Speech?

When Elon Musk took over Twitter in October 2022, he made freedom of speech one of his top priorities, declaring a “freedom of speech, not freedom of reach” approach.  According to the policy, Twitter would be a platform where anyone could say anything, but where the reach of posts could be limited. Organizations working to limit hate speech decried this policy, with the Center for Countering Digital Hate releasing a report showing that hate speech skyrocketed following Musk’s takeover.

In November 2022, the European Union passed the Digital Services Act, empowering the E.U. to fine social media companies for improperly removing illegal hate speech as defined by E.U. law.  As Sweden bids to join the E.U., the country’s permissive free speech policies are coming into conflict with E.U. regulations.

Freedom of speech is important, but so are freedom of religion and human dignity. Desecrating holy texts sends the message that that religion or that that people’s religious beliefs, are less important or less meaningful. It is a disrespectful and hateful act that undermines the critical human values ​​of tolerance and freedom of religion and only serves to perpetuate hate and violence.

Ancient Restrictions on Worship

Last week we celebrated Tu B’Av, known as the day of matchmaking and as the Jewish version of Valentine’s Day. However, this is only a small part of the importance of this day in Jewish history.  The Mishnah and the Talmud state that, along with Yom Kippur, it is the happiest day in the Jewish calendar, coming just six days after Tisha B’Av, the saddest day.  Tu B’Av is one of the happiest day in the Jewish calendar because six positive events took place on this day throughout history, with one of them highly relevant to religious liberty. 

Shortly after the death of King Solomon, the United Kingdom of Israel split in two: the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah. One of the main proponents of the split, Jeroboam, became the first king of the new Kingdom of Israel. Fearful of losing his new power, he appointed border guards to prevent his subjects from making pilgrimages to Jerusalem, lest they choose to stay — thus restricting their ability to practice their religion. This strict separation was maintained for 20 generations of kings, until King Hoshea abolished the law on Tu B’Av and declared that anyone who wanted to go up to Jerusalem could do so.  As the people of the Kingdom of Israel were now permitted to practice their religion and celebrate the three pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem, Tu B’Av became a day to celebrate joy.[2]

Consequences of Hate Speech

In the 19th century, the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine said, “Those who burn books will, in the end, burn people.” This grim prediction came true during the days of the Nazi regime, when 90 years ago last May, university students and professors gathered in Germany and burned more than 25,000 books by Jewish and communist writers that had been looted from libraries and private collections. The burning of the books was just the beginning of the horrific events leading to the Holocaust. This did not happen in a vacuum. Years of propaganda led to a society accustomed to scapegoating and hating the Jewish people.

The recent Quran burnings demonstrate just how important it is to practice tolerance for others and nip hate speech in the bud. Hate speech has led to violence and tragedy for centuries, and with the rise of social media enabling a single thought to spread to millions of people within moments, we must be more vigilant than ever. Some governments, like the E.U., are stepping up and creating policies to hold platforms responsible for the hate content that they host. But social media platforms must work to better enforce their own hate speech policies to ensure that their users are protected from hate and harassment. Unfortunately, dozens of antisemitic posts falsely accusing the Jewish people of being behind the Quran burnings remain online even though they violate the platforms’ hate speech policies. We must demand better — because, as we see all too often, hate speech online leads to harm and violence in real life. 


[1] See e.g., Protocol No. 3: “[…] In order to incite seekers after power to a misuse of power we have set all forces in opposition one to another, breaking up their liberal tendencies towards independence. To this end we have stirred up every form of enterprise, we have armed all parties, we have set up authority as a target for every ambition. Of States we have made gladiatorial arenas where a lot of confused issues contend …. A little more, and disorders […] will be universal […]”.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 26b, 30b.

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After demonstrators burned copies of the Quran in Sweden and Denmark, some people took to social media to blame Jews for the desecration and resulting conflicts.

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