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The Dilemma of Burning Holy Books in Denmark and Sweden

Can Quran-burning be an expression of freedom of speech in Scandinavia? The religious desecration is presenting diplomatic troubles.

Protesters burning the Swedish and Danish flag. Shutterstock/Loredana Sangiuliano

Sweden and Denmark are facing diplomatic trouble, as multiple individuals are burning the Quran often in front of embassies of countries with a Muslim majority. These nations have responded harshly to these actions, which puts the Swedish and Danish governments in quite a dilemma. Is the burning of books truly a right under Freedom of Speech?    

The Two Wrecking-Balls

Over the summer, there have been multiple incidents where the Quran has been burnt or been threatened to be burnt. The two main characters are Rasmus Paludan and Salwan Momika. First, a Danish-Swedish far-right extremist with a bachelor in law. Second, a Christian Iraqi refugee who is now part of the Swedish ultra-nationalist party. Although they have no known connection with each other, the two are responsible for multiple anti-Islam protests and the burning of the Quran.

Rasmus Paludan founded the far-right nationalist party Stram Kurs (Hard Line) in 2017. The party gathered enough votes to take part in the Danish 2019 general election, but it was not voted into government.

BBC reported on Hard Line: “It ran on a platform of banning Islam and deporting all of Denmark’s Muslims. Paludan has himself led demonstrations that involve burning the Koran in areas with ethnic minority communities.”

Rasmus Paludan shouting during protest
Rasmus Paludan shouting at people during a protest in Copenhagen. Credit: Shutterstock/Zakariaa El Mikdam

The Book-Burning Protests

In 2020, Paludan began plans to go to Sweden for his anti-Islam protests. On the 21st of January 2023, Paludan took part in a demonstration in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm and set fire to a Quran with a lighter. Euronews reports in this article that the demonstration was led by a pro-Russia journalist Chang Frick. The demonstration upset Turkey and caused repercussions regarding Sweden’s application to join NATO.

Salwan Momika, on the 28th of June 2023, marched to the biggest mosque in Stockholm on the first day of the Muslim holiday Eid. He waved two Swedish flags while blasting the Swedish national anthem. From here, he placed strips of bacon in the Quran and burned it as observed by the Daily Mail.  

In Denmark, multiple follow-up protests followed Momika’s protest. The group Danske Partioter burned the Quran outside the Iraqi embassy. A group of protesters also burned a Quran outside the Egyptian and Turkish embassies.

The Fruitless Efforts To Stop Paludan and Momika

Sweden tried to ban Paludan from entering the country for two years in 2020, as reported by SVT, but he obtained citizenship through his father’s Swedish nationality.

Denmark has also tried to prevent Paludan from carrying out his actions. The BBC reported that in 2019, Paludan was found guilty of racism, and he was given a suspended jail sentence. In 2021, the Copenhagen Post reported that he was faced with 14 charges of racism, defamation as well as dangerous driving. However, after an appeal, he was given a suspended sentence and a minor fine.

For Salwan Momika, the Swedish police allowed the protest, but the Swedish Minister of Affairs afterward condemned the action as being “Islamophobia.” Once again, Turkey was angry and threatened to block Sweden from joining NATO.

Counter-Protests in Muslim Nations

The newspaper Aljazeera reported that in Pakistan, there were large protests condemning the burning of the Quran in Sweden. The protesters called for a diplomatic severing of ties with Sweden.

In Baghdad, protesters stormed the Swedish Embassy and set the building on fire. Iraq also expelled the Swedish ambassador and severed diplomatic ties with Sweden.

The Swedish newspaper TV4 reported that the Iranian militia, Ashab al-Kah, that have mostly operated in Baghdad issued threats on Telegram urging followers to target Swedish people.

The governments of both Denmark and Sweden have condemned the burnings, but both countries do not have blasphemy laws. They abolished them respectively in the 1970s (Sweden) and in 2017 (Denmark). As such it is not illegal to insult religion, which means that there is no legislation against burning the Quran or any other holy book.

Freedom of Speech in Sweden and Denmark

Two signs saying censorship and freedom of speech
Two signs that say censorship and freedom of speech pointing in different directions. Credit: Shutterstock/M-SUR

On the importance of Freedom of Speech in the Scandinavian countries, Marten Schutlz, a law professor at Stockholm University told CNN: “Sweden’s protection, under the Swedish constitution, for freedom of expression, is the strongest protection in the world—even more so than the first amendment in the United States. Freedom of speech is almost always the first priority in all conflicts of interests or values.”

However, the Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson has stated to the Swedish state media SVT: “We are currently in the most serious security situation since the Second World War, and as for Sweden, we are aware that states and state-like actors are actively exploiting the situation.”

Sweden’s Civil Defence Minister, Carl-Oskar Bohlin, also claimed in a statement that Russian-affiliated actors were attempting to capitalize on the situation: “Russia-backed actors are amplifying incorrect statements such as that the Swedish state is behind the desecration of holy scriptures.”

Sweden and Denmark are in a difficult position. The governments try to distance themselves from the acts. Yet, they cannot stop their citizens from burning books. The existing laws that protect the freedom of speech also protect acts of religious desecration.

Sophie Blomback, a political scientist at Mid Sweden University, told CNN that the Swedish government’s stance on the issue is: “It’s legal, but we don’t like it.”

However, here you can read the article “Sink Sh*tting Trend Has Grassroots Movement In Sweden” to see how the Swedes have seen weird trends popping up during the Christian holidays as well.

The Consideration of a Book-Burning Ban

Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the Danish Foreign Minister, spoke on the matter in interview with DR. He said the Danish government will be looking into finding a “judicial tool” to prevent individuals burning the Quran.  

“We have decided in the government that we will look at how, in very special situations, we can put an end to the mockery of other countries, which is in direct conflict with Danish interests and the safety of the Danes,” he said in the interview.

The Danish parties that are against such a legislative change fear that it will be a landslide towards a reduction of the freedom of speech. Parties from across the entire political spectrum agree on this.  

The Arguments for Freedom of Speech

Pia Olsen Dyrh of the Danish Socialist Party (SF) argues on X: ”While the OIC discusses how terrible the circumstances are in Denmark and Sweden, their own people suffer under non-freedom. Vi shall not reduce our freedom.”

Inger Støjberg of the Danish Nationalist Party (Danmarksdemokraterne), after having received a death threat for her views on the burning of the Quran, stated on Facebook that “we must stand unshakably firm on our right of freedom of speech. Otherwise, the foundation of everything we’ve built our society upon will slide.”

Alex Vanopslagh from the Danish Liberal Party (Liberal Alliance) argues on X: “It is worrying if diplomatic pressure from Islamic countries means that we limit our freedom of speech in Denmark. It is important and fundamental principles in our liberal democracy that are at stake. There is a risk of this becoming a landslide towards further limitations of our freedom of speech.”  

However, no matter the number of landslide arguments, Denmark and Sweden cannot avoid the fact that they are in a major diplomatic dilemma that might lead to further tensions if nothing is done.

Written By

Journalist Intern at Trill Mag and Student in English and French at University of St Andrews. From Copenhagen, Denmark

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