Denmark and Sweden, under growing pressure from Muslim countries, are contemplating free speech restrictions that would outlaw burning copies of the Quran. Recent Quran-burnings by anti-Islam activists in Copenhagen and Stockholm have sparked angry protests in several Muslim countries and increased the terrorist threat against the two Scandinavian countries.
The threats have fueled a debate about balancing free speech and security, but some observers are warning that changing free speech laws in the middle of a security crisis would be "giving in to blackmail." The editorial board of Expressen, one of Sweden's oldest newspapers, noted that doing so "would in practice mean that foreign actors are given power over which opinions are allowed in Sweden."
On July 31, the foreign ministers of the fifty-seven member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) — a Saudi Arabia-based group that has long called for an international blasphemy law that would not only guarantee special protections for Islam, but also shield it from legitimate scrutiny and criticism — convened an "extraordinary session" to discuss responses to the Quran burnings.
In a statement, the OIC expressed anger at Denmark and Sweden for failing to outlaw "the repetition of such acts of aggression" that "spread hatred and contempt for religions and threaten global peace, security and harmony." The OIC also called for an international law aimed at "criminalizing incitement to violence based on religion or belief," and demanded that the European Union "clarify the gravity and consequences of persisting in insulting Islamic symbols and sanctities."
On July 12, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) approved an OIC-sponsored resolution — "Countering Religious Hatred Constituting Incitement to Discrimination, Hostility or Violence" — that seeks to outlaw "public and premeditated acts of desecration of the Holy Qur'an." The resolution, which passed with a vote of twenty-eight in favor, twelve against, and seven abstentions, was opposed by the United States and the European Union on free speech grounds.
The OIC has long pressed the European Union and the United States to impose limits on free speech and expression about Islam. It recently has redoubled efforts to persuade Western democracies to implement HRC Resolution 16/18, which calls on all countries to combat "intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization" of "religion and belief."
Resolution 16/18, which was adopted at HRC headquarters in Geneva in March 2011, is widely viewed as the cornerstone of OIC efforts to advance the international legal concept of "defaming Islam." International human rights law as currently constituted protects individuals, not religions. The OIC effectively is seeking a paradigm shift to the existing international legal order that would make criticizing Islam a violation of human rights — at the expense of free speech.
Denmark and Sweden, known for their storied traditions of constitutionally-protected free speech, have long been on the radar of Islamists. In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve editorial cartoons, some of which depicted Mohammad, the prophet of Islam. This sparked deadly riots across the Muslim world. As the Middle East Quarterly noted at the time, the cartoon controversy "had less to do with genuine outrage over the depiction of Islam's prophet and more to do with the ambitions, first, of a small group of radical imams, and, later, of jousting Middle Eastern powers."
In Sweden, a Quran-burning rally in Stockholm in January 2023 enraged the Turkish government and jeopardized Sweden's bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned that "as long as you allow my holy book, the Quran, to be burned and torn, we will not say 'yes' to your entry into NATO." That threat was widely interpreted as a demand that Sweden enact a new blasphemy law as a condition for NATO membership.
On February 8, in a reversal of long-standing policy, the Swedish government refused to allow anti-Islam activists to burn a Quran in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. They subsequently prohibited a Quran burning rally that was planned for February 20 in front of the Iraqi embassy in the Swedish capital. On June 12, the Swedish Court of Appeals ruled that those bans were unconstitutional.
Since then, two Iraqi immigrants — thirty-seven-year-old Salwan Momika, who arrived in Sweden from Iraq in 2018 and received a three-year residence permit in April 2021, and forty-eight-year-old Salwan Najem, who migrated to Sweden from Iraq in 1998 and became a Swedish citizen in June 2005 — have repeatedly desecrated the Islamic holy book.
On June 28, Momika burned a Quran outside Stockholm's Central Mosque. On July 20, Momika and Najem stomped on a Quran outside the Iraqi Embassy in Stockholm and on July 31, they burned a Quran in front of the Swedish Parliament. The desecrations provoked widespread anger across the Muslim world, including from Erdoğan, who vowed to "teach the arrogant Western people that it is not freedom of expression to insult the sacred values of Muslims."
Some analysts say Erdoğan, whose longstanding goal has been to criminalize criticism of Islam in Europe, is seizing on the Quran burnings and other "Islamophobia" controversies to extract concessions from Sweden and other European countries. Abdullah Bozkurt, an exiled Turkish journalist who lives in Sweden, told FWI that Erdoğan is seeking to "exert pressure on Western countries" and "strengthen his bargaining power" to crack down on his political opponents in Europe and to "undermine their well-founded criticisms of Türkiye on massive human rights violations."
The Swedish Security Service (Säkerhetspolisen, Säpo) warned that Quran burnings and the subsequent protests in the Muslim world have resulted in a "worsening of the security situation." Säpo's deputy head of counter-terrorism, Susanna Trehörning, told SVT public television that there are "influential people who are now sending out very clear narratives about Sweden and also calls for revenge." She added that the "threat from people within the violent Islamist environment" was "very high."
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson warned that his country is facing its "most serious security challenge since World War II." Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström, in a letter to the OIC, noted that although the government denounces the Quran burnings, freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution. Swedish Justice Minister Gunnar Strömmer announced that the government was considering possible changes to the Public Order Act but that there is no "quick fix" to stop the Quran burnings. Meanwhile, Sweden's Immigration Agency said that it was reviewing Momika's residency permit, which expires in 2024.
On July 30, the Danish government issued a statement saying that it was exploring "the possibility of intervening in special situations where, for instance, other countries, cultures, and religions are being insulted, and where this could have significant negative consequences for Denmark, not least with regard to security." It added that "this must of course be done within the framework of the constitutionally protected freedom of expression and in a manner that does not change the fact that freedom of expression in Denmark has very broad scope."
A July 6 opinion poll commissioned by SVT television found that 53 percent of Swedes favored a ban on Quran burnings, while 47 percent were opposed or unsure. This compares to a similar poll commissioned by TV4 Nyheterna in February which showed that 42 percent were in favor of such a ban while 67 percent were opposed or unsure.
The editorial board of the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter warned that Islamists "will not be content with a blasphemy law because they will always want to go one step further." The editorial board of the Swedish newspaper Expressen agreed that the Islamists pressuring Sweden are "unlikely to be content" with a ban on Quran burnings. "The risk is obvious that small Swedish concessions in this situation would only lead to new demands for submission."
Sofie Löwenmark, a Swedish journalist who covers Islamism, said that calls for a ban on Quran burnings are a smokescreen to hide the larger objective: a ban on legitimate criticism of Islam.
Soeren Kern is a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow.