When it comes to religious oppression, where does it end?

Respect and coercion clash in Sweden. Should Quran burning be safely squelched, is Dante’s ‘Inferno’ next?

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Pakistan Muslim Women League members hold a banner during a rally to denounce the recent burning of the holy book Quran that took place in Sweden, Tuesday, July 18, 2023, in Lahore, Pakistan.

Muslim Women League Pakistan members chant slogans during a rally on July 18 in Lahore to denounce the recent burning of the holy book Quran in Sweden.

K.M. Chaudary/Associated Press

Readers sometimes suggest that I am against religion. Which is simply not true.

Life is a long time, pocked with misfortune and death. Faith in some kind of comforting story seems to help, filling the empty hours, creating the illusion of meaning, and comforting sufferers when reason fails. I’d never dream of trying to yank that blankie away.

Rather, I believe religion should be voluntary. A radical thought, I know, so let me explain. You review the beliefs and practices dictated by a particular faith — angels, Kashrut, the giant tortoise balancing the universe on his shell, whatever — and freely decide what to embrace and what to reject. Your call. Not mine.

This liberal lunacy can confuse religious types, who consider forcing their practices upon the unwilling an integral part of their belief system. So much that to oppose their doing so strikes them as attacking their faith, root and branch. If I decide not to celebrate Christmas, I am deliberately offending them.

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And the faithful have a genius for taking offense. The acts of others, if contrary to their religion, are a sort of death ray, effective over huge distances. That baffles me. There’s almost nothing you can do to offend me. Call me awful names? Get in line. Make a big pile of my books and set them on fire? Fine, if you paid for them. I’ll tweet a photo of the flames. That kind of vituperation is a compliment — people sharing hate mail are slyly bragging: “I matter; look at the reaction I inspire!”

To me, taking offense only draws attention to criticism. By culling books on America’s racist past, the state of Florida didn’t suppress history; it magnified it.

The ability to absorb criticism is a challenge everywhere. Are you following the problems radiating from Sweden? On June 28, Salwan Momika, an Iraqi refugee, burned pages torn from a Quran in front of a Stockholm mosque during the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha (while waving Swedish flags and blasting the Swedish national anthem — a dramatic touch). The complication is that in Sweden, you need official approval to hold a protest. He had it.

The burning turned an isolated act into an international crisis. Iraq expelled its Swedish ambassador and a mob attacked the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad. Some argue that burning Qurans is not free speech, but hate speech, and thus illegal. That makes some sense to me — a burning Quran could be like a burning cross. The whole imbroglio might stall Sweden’s membership in NATO.

I’m torn. You could say it’s called consequences. Right-wingers in this country like to hide behind the First Amendment when expressing loathsome sentiments, forgetting that the Constitution prevents our government from censoring them, not their fellow citizens from reacting viscerally or regarding them as haters and loons.

If I show up outside Holy Name Cathedral on Easter and set a huge crucifix ablaze, it’s my right, perhaps. But I’m also asking for trouble. An act being legally permissible and it being a good idea are very different things.

That said, I’m reluctant to let zealous mobs in distant countries limit my freedoms in the United States. First, as we’ve learned from our own homegrown fanatics, religious oppression is insatiable. Win the abortion battle, and they immediately go after contraception. There’s no end. What if, should Quran burning be safely squelched, they decide to ... oh for instance ... go after Dante?

The Prophet Muhammad, blessed be he, makes a startling appearance in “Inferno,” at the beginning of the 28th canto, in the ninth ditch of hell. He’s among the schismatics, split from chin to anus, trailing his entrails. It’s grosser than that, but prudence suggests not to go into further details.

Why don’t Iraqis demand that every library in the world yank their copies of “Inferno”? Maybe that’s too high a hill — easier to abuse Sweden.

But if they did demand it, what could we say? That purging libraries of books that some claim offend their sensibilities is un-American? Ah, hahaha. Don’t get me wrong, the hypocrisy is there. I can see a Florida official, arms filled with volumes freshly yanked because they suggest that racism runs through American history, or that LGBTQ people exist, patiently explaining that no, we can’t ban books out of consideration for Muslim sensibilities. Not in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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