Why Does Sweden Allow Quran Burnings? It Has No Blasphemy Laws

STOCKHOLM — A recent string of public desecrations of the Quran by a handful of anti-Islam activists in Sweden has sparked an angry reaction in Muslim countries and raised questions – including in Sweden – about why such acts are allowed.

In the latest such incident, an Iraqi living in Sweden on Thursday stomped on and kicked Islam’s holy book in a two-man rally outside the Iraqi Embassy in Stockholm. The protest was authorized by Swedish police, who kept a handful of agitated counterdemonstrators at a safe distance.

The same Iraqi man burned a Quran outside a Stockholm mosque last month in a similar protest that was approved by police. And at the start of the year, a far-right activist from Denmark carried out a similar stunt outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm.

Here’s a look at how Swedish authorities have been dealing with these acts.

Is desecrating the Quran allowed in Sweden?

There is no law in Sweden specifically prohibiting the burning or desecration of the Quran or other religious texts. Like many Western countries, Sweden doesn’t have any blasphemy laws.

It wasn’t always that way. As late as the 19th century, blasphemy was considered a serious crime in Sweden, punishable by death. But blasphemy laws were gradually relaxed as Sweden became increasingly secularized. The last such law was taken off the books in 1970.

Can Swedish authorities stop such acts?

Many Muslim countries have called on the Swedish government to stop protesters from burning the Quran. But in Sweden it is up to police, not the government, to decide whether to authorize demonstrations or public gatherings.

The freedom of speech is protected under the Swedish constitution. Police need to cite specific grounds to deny a permit for a demonstration or public gathering, such as risks to public safety.

Stockholm police did just that in February when they denied two applications for Quran-burning protests, citing assessments from the Swedish Security Service that such acts could increase the risk of terror attacks against Sweden. But a court later overturned those decisions, saying police need to cite more concrete threats to ban a public gathering.

Can Quran-burning be considered hate speech?

Sweden’s hate speech law prohibits incitement against groups of people based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Some say burning the Quran constitutes incitement against Muslims and should therefore be considered as hate speech. Others say such acts are targeting the religion of Islam rather than practitioners of the faith, and that criticism of religion must be covered by freedom of speech, even when some consider it offensive.

Seeking guidance from the justice system, Swedish police have filed preliminary hate crime charges against the man who burned the Quran outside a mosque in Stockholm in June and desecrated Islam’s holy book again Thursday. It’s now up to prosecutors to decide whether to formally indict him.

Are Swedish authorities singling out Muslims and the Quran?

Some Muslims in Sweden who were deeply hurt by recent Quran burnings questioned whether Swedish police would allow the desecration of holy books from other religions.

One Muslim man apparently decided to put that to the test and applied for permission to stage a protest Saturday outside the Israeli Embassy in which he said he intended to burn the Torah and the Bible.

Though Israeli government officials and Jewish groups condemned the planned act and called on Swedish authorities to stop it, police approved the man’s request. However, once at the scene the man backed away from his plans, saying that as a Muslim he was against the burning of all religious books.

How is blasphemy viewed in other parts of the world?

Blasphemy is criminalized in many countries. A Pew Research Center analysis found that 79 countries and territories out of the 198 studied had laws or policies on the books in 2019 that banned blasphemy, defined as “speech or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or of people or objects considered sacred.” In at least seven countries – Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – it carried a potential death sentence.

In the Middle East and North Africa, 18 of the 20 countries studied had laws criminalizing blasphemy, although not in most cases punishable by death.

In Iraq, publicly insulting a symbol or a person that is held sacred, revered, or respected by a religious sect is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.

Likewise in religiously diverse Lebanon, where sectarian divisions helped fuel a 15-year civil war from 1975-90, any act “intended to or resulting in” provoking “sectarian strife” is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.

In the United States, under the freedom of speech protections in the First Amendment of the Constitution, it’s not illegal to burn copies of the Quran or other holy books.

For example, authorities were appalled by Florida pastor Terry Jones’ threat in 2010 to burn a copy of the Quran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but were unable to take legal action. Jones didn’t go through with that plan, but he led a Quran-burning in Florida the next year. 

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