Quran Burning In Stockholm Raises Questions About Freedom Of Speech

On the July 31st, 2023  two Iraqi refugees, Salwan Momika and Salwan Najem desecrated and burnt a copy of the Quran outside of the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, provoking anger from the countries of the Muslim world. This act was the last in the series of similar ones in Sweden in recent months, due in part to the country’s incredibly broad free speech laws, which do not prohibit public burning of religious texts and symbols. As a result of this, Sweden’s relationships with Islamic governments such as that of Iraq have drastically worsened and many analysts believe that the risk of terrorist attacks in the country might be on the rise. Other Nordic countries, including Denmark, are currently in the process of drafting up bills that would outlaw similar acts. Sweden itself has made no such plans.

The protests which resulted in the burnings have been registered with the Swedish government, mostly by the far-right, and were as such legal despite their blatant Islamophobia. Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hakan Fidan, has condemned Sweden’s issuing of the permit. “It is unacceptable to allow these anti-Islamic actions under the pretext of expression. To turn a blind eye to such heinous acts is to be complicit in them.” he said in a statement issued after another burning earlier in July, also committed by Momika and Najem. Many have pressured Sweden to outlaw similar acts in the future, but some still defend the status quo, concerned about the potential ramifications ‘religious offence’ laws might lead to when it comes to censorship. Sweden’s Prime Minister, Ulf Kristersson, for now prefers to leave moral judgement to the people, rather than the courts. “(…) With a great degree of freedom comes a great degree of responsibility.” He stated in a press conference following the Monday incident. “Everything that is legal is not appropriate. It can be awful but still lawful. We try to promote a respectful tone between countries and peoples.”

It is without question that acts of Islamophobia should be condemned. However, restricting the rights to acts of self-expression is always a dangerous direction to pursue in legislature. In many primarily religious countries, an act of protest against religion can often be aimed not at the religious community itself, but rather at the pressure or persecution the state enacts in their name on non-religious citizens and minorities. Even though Sweden is not a country operating based on the principles of Islam, there are still good reasons to argue against a harsh free speech reform. Instead, it might be more worthwhile on the part of Stockholm to pursue softer legislative means, such as ceasing to issue permits for public manifestations that actively target specific ethnic or cultural minorities, in order to prevent future incidents. In a free country, it should always be possible for a refugee to be able to express grievances against an important part of their home country’s culture, as long as it’s done by ways of actual discussion, and not acts of hate.

This year Sweden and Denmark have been a site of numerous instances of Quran desecration, starting in January when Rasmus Paludan, a far right Danish-Swedish politician, burned a copy in front of the Turkish embassy, and becoming more and more prolific since the incident in June. Each incident has further aggravated the members of Muslim communities, both in the form of minorities in Europe and the countries of the Islamic world. In the latter, multiple manifestations have taken place, with protesters storming the Swedish embassy in Baghdad and attempting to do the same in Islamabad. It is strongly believed that the issues with Sweden’s NATO membership were in big part caused by the tensions that resulted from their refusal to change their public speech policy.

If left unchecked, the current policy on the part of Stockholm poses a danger to strengthening Islamophobic voices within Swedish society, as well as making the country a target for outside forces’. In the struggle to avoid this outcome it will be important not to act rashly, and protect the rights of Swedish people to free speech. If politicians in Stockholm do not succeed in achieving this balance, the result from such a fallout might take years to heal.