At least two public desecrations of the Quran in Sweden in recent weeks have provoked riots, caused a diplomatic crisis and placed a country that was long regarded as peaceful and tolerant under an awkward international spotlight.
With a flurry of new permits to burn the Quran requested in recent days under the country’s laws covering public demonstrations, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson has described the security situation in Sweden as the most serious since World War II. He has also voiced concerns over the implications for Swedes domestically and abroad.
The governments of many predominantly Muslim countries have issued withering denunciations of the Swedish authorities for allowing such desecrations. In mid-July, hundreds of people stormed the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad and set parts of it ablaze after a protester in Stockholm burned a Quran the previous month. Iraq also expelled the Swedish ambassador and directed his Iraqi counterpart to withdraw from the country’s embassy in Stockholm.
The demonstrators, angry over Quran burnings in Sweden, protested throughout the night, setting part of the embassy on fire.CreditCredit…Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The Swedish government has also condemned the recent anti-Muslim acts, which have been largely conducted by one Iraqi refugee but which are allowed under the country’s laws on freedom of speech. Similar protests have also taken place in Denmark, where the government has called them “deeply offensive and reckless acts committed by few individuals.”
Here’s what to know about the Quran burnings and the larger issues they have raised.
Who’s been doing the burnings?
Right-wing nationalists have engaged in burning copies of the Quran in Sweden for years. One of them, Rasmus Paludan, a conservative Danish Swedish politician, has become notorious for setting fire to the Muslim scriptures several times, including this past January.
The most recent to carry out such an act in the country, Salwan Momika, is an Iraqi immigrant to Sweden who describes himself on Facebook as a liberal atheist. But he has also expressed hard-line anti-Muslim views and said that he was seeking to draw attention to the mistreatment of Christian minorities by Islamist extremists in some Arab countries.
“I am warning the Swedish people about the dangers of this book,” Mr. Momika said through a megaphone outside a mosque in Stockholm in late June — on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha — before setting a Quran ablaze. “They killed Christians and took their possessions; they killed atheists” because of the Quran’s teachings, Mr. Momika said.
This month, he tore up a copy of the Quran in Stockholm before kicking it around with a second protester, though he did not burn the book.
Mr. Momika has been charged with agitation against an ethnic or national group, according to the police.
A Muslim man was later granted a permit to burn a Torah and a Bible outside the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm. After an international outcry, the man, Ahmad Alush, told reporters that his intention had not been to burn the scriptures but to underscore the abhorrence of such acts.
In neighboring Denmark, a small group of far-right nationalists filmed themselves last week burning what they said was a Quran in front of the Iraqi Embassy. In response, hundreds of protesters in Baghdad tried to storm the Danish Embassy there before security forces dispersed them.
What is the response in Sweden?
The actions have provoked debate over Sweden’s freedom-of-speech protections, which have compelled the government to issue permits for Quran-burning rallies.
“When you see our embassy burning in Baghdad, you see the damage this causes to our country and reputation,” Jan Eliasson, a former Swedish foreign minister and senior United Nations diplomat, said this month. “On the other hand, the legislation is what it is — this is not illegal.”
Sweden has long enforced tough, constitutionally enshrined protections for freedom of speech and expression. It was also one of the first countries in Europe to have a constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of the press. Although its anti-blasphemy laws were repealed in the 1970s, hate speech against ethnic, national, religious and gender minorities remains a crime.
The Swedish authorities have sought to deny several permits for anti-Quran protests, citing a fear of increased terrorist attacks, but the courts have overruled those denials, saying that they lacked sufficient grounds. Sweden’s intelligence service has warned that the country’s reputation had shifted from tolerant to hostile toward Muslims, contributing to a “security situation that has deteriorated.”
Mr. Kristersson, the prime minister, has said that the country is analyzing the legality of the situation to explore measures that would “strengthen our national security and the security of Swedes in Sweden and in the world.”
Members of the Swedish Democrats, an outspokenly anti-immigrant party with neo-Nazi roots that is now the second-largest party in Parliament, have taken a more hard-line view. “We have nothing to learn from the Muslim countries,” Richard Jomshof, a lawmaker from the party, wrote on Twitter this month. “That they should be allowed to lecture us about democracy and freedom of expression is, to say the least, strange and downright laughable.”
There appears to be some support in Sweden for adjusting the country’s laws. In a poll of 2,000 people conducted this month by Kantar Public, an international public policy research group, about half of those who responded said they favored a prohibition on burning holy texts, according to Toivo Sjoren, who leads Kantar Public’s opinion research division.
Others say that the country’s existing laws on incitement and hate speech should be better enforced, but that an outright ban could put civil liberties at risk.
“We should not go back in time and rewrite laws about blasphemy,” Ola Larsmo, an author and a board member of PEN International, a free-speech group, said in an interview this month. “If you open that door, there’s a labyrinth behind it.”
What has the international reaction been?
Sweden and Denmark have faced condemnation in the Muslim world.
After a Quran burning in Sweden in January, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said that his country would not back Sweden’s accession to NATO as long as the Swedish authorities were issuing permits for such acts. And Turkey’s foreign minister said this month that Stockholm’s inability to “prevent provocations” had raised questions over Sweden’s credentials for membership.
Turkey has since cleared the way for Sweden to join NATO, though Mr. Erdogan said that Stockholm needed to take more steps to win the support of the Turkish Parliament.
On July 20, after Mr. Momika desecrated a Quran for a second time, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said it expected Sweden to “take deterrent measures to prevent this hate crime.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called on Sweden to hand Mr. Momika and other Quran burners over to “the judicial systems of Islamic countries.”
Regarding the Quran burning in Denmark, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry denounced the action but did not immediately threaten to cut ties with Copenhagen. “Such horrific incidents do not fall under the umbrella of freedom of speech,” the ministry said. “These actions spark reactions and place us all in a critical situation.”
In response, Denmark’s government has said that it will explore the possibility of intervening in protests where “other countries, cultures and religions are being insulted, and where this could have significant negative consequences for Denmark,” but it cautioned that any changes could not be at odds with freedom-of-expression protections.
Christina Anderson and Isabella Kwai contributed reporting.