Koran burning in Scandinavia: freedom of expression’s ultimate test?

Anti-Islam demonstrations have sparked condemnation and raised constitutional challenges for Sweden and Denmark

A man holding up a copy of the Koran that is on fire
A man burnt a Koran outside a mosque in Stockholm last month, one of a ‘string’ of such incidents
(Image credit: Nils Petter Nilsson/Getty Images)

Incidents of the Koran being publicly burnt in Sweden and Denmark have caused huge offence and upset across the Islamic world and sparked condemnation from European leaders.

A far-right activist was given permission by Swedish authorities to burn the holy text outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm in January, and a “string” of similar demonstrations has taken place in the Scandinavian countries since, said Politico.

During Eid al-Adha last month, a protester burnt the Koran in front of a mosque in Stockholm. This week, far-right protesters set copies of the holy book alight in front of the Turkish and Egyptian embassies in Copenhagen.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

“The issue has thrown up a major dilemma,” said the BBC. Sweden and Denmark’s governments have condemned the burnings, but both countries’ laws staunchly protect freedom of expression and the right to protest.

Constitutional challenges

Sweden’s constitution protects the right to freedom of expression regardless of the subject, including “expressions of opinion that question religious messages, or that can be perceived as hurtful to the believer”.

Police had previously refused to grant permission for planned gatherings, but a court overturned the decision in April, ruling that demonstration permits could only be withheld if “relatively concrete circumstances” indicate a serious security or public order risk.

Mårten Schultz, a law professor at Stockholm University, told the BBC that freedom of speech for Swedes is “not just the law but a fundamental value”. At stake for them is “a historic and fundamental right dating back to 1766”, the BBC noted.

Sweden does have a law that prohibits “incitement against ethnic groups, in place since 1949 in response to the Holocaust”, said the BBC. But experts say that the target of the burnings was “a book instead of people or individuals” and so a reading of the law that prohibits public demonstrations of this kind is “not appropriate”.

‘A clear provocation’

Koran burnings “briefly threatened to derail” Sweden’s bid to join Nato earlier this year, “amid a backlash in Turkey”, said The Times. Now, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are among a number of countries that have condemned the burnings and summoned Swedish representatives.

Sweden’s image on the global stage has changed from that of “a tolerant country to a country hostile to Islam and Muslims”, its security service has warned. Protesters “stormed the Swedish embassy” in Baghdad last week, said Politico, “and tried to reach the Danish embassy” before security forces intervened.

“Anger spilled over” at the United Nations this week, said the BBC, as some countries argued that while the protests were “offensive” they were “not against international law”.

The situation is placing the Scandinavian countries at odds with international allies. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the demonstrations were “offensive, disrespectful and a clear provocation”, and that “expressions of racism, xenophobia and related intolerance have no place in the European union”.

The Organization of Islamic Countries will meet on Monday to discuss the Koran burnings, but a resolution could be a way off. As Sweden’s foreign minister Tobias Billström has warned: “There are no quick fixes.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Julia O'Driscoll is the engagement editor. She covers UK and world news, as well as writing lifestyle and travel features. She regularly appears on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast, and hosted The Week's short-form documentary podcast, “The Overview”. Julia was previously the content and social media editor at sustainability consultancy Eco-Age, where she interviewed prominent voices in sustainable fashion and climate movements. She has a master's in liberal arts from Bristol University, and spent a year studying at Charles University in Prague.