Outlook #5: Quran Burnings in Sweden: Free Speech Gone Too Far?

WWritten by Larasati Hidiaputri, Natasha Fazilla P.N., and Naufal Qinthara Rasyad
Research and Analysis Division FPCI Chapter UI Board of 2023
During the first day of Eid al-Adha on the 28th of June of 2023, a man started a demonstration and burned the Holy Quran in front of the Grand Mosque of Stockholm (Mannes & Rasmussen, 2023). The perpetrator, Salwan Momika, a Christian Iraqi immigrant living in Sweden, said he wanted to express his opinion about the Quran by tearing it up and burning it. The act received permission from the Swedish police as it is ruled to be within the freedom of speech (Kwai & Rubin, 2023), although later the man was charged with agitation against an ethnic or national group (Mannes & Rasmussen, 2023). Predictably, this act sparked an outcry from Muslims around the globe (Ritter & Olsen, 2023). But not only from Muslims whose holy book was insulted, several Christian churches and communities have also joined in voicing their condemnation against the burning (Casper, 2023).
This incident did not occur in isolation, but rather, it was enabled by the limitation of existing laws that led to the ambiguity between freedom of speech and hate speech. The legal status of blasphemy in the Scandinavian region itself has some differences, with Norway and Denmark having repealed old blasphemy laws, while Sweden has no solid forms of blasphemy laws in the first place. So, how have the global communities reacted to this issue and how should we respond?

A Fiery Trigger: What Sparked This?

Sweden used to have several laws protecting religion dating all the way to the Middle Ages. They were replaced in 1949 by a law promoting serenity of faith (trosfrid), which was then repealed in 1970 (Jänterä-Jareborg, 2004). It follows that Sweden does protect the exercise of religion but has no laws against its defamation. One such law is an offense called “agitation against a national or ethnic group”, which is what Momika was charged with. Momika’s motive for demonstrating and burning the Quran was said to be solely protesting against Islam. Aside from whatever motive Momika may have, this act was unfortunately not the first to occur in Sweden or even in Scandinavia. Earlier this year, on the 21st of January, Danish far-right politician Rasmus Paludan burned a copy of the Quran in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm (Al Jazeera, 2023). Previously, Paludan and his far-right party, Stram Kurs, actually had plans to burn the Quran in Sweden in 2020 and 2022, but in both cases, the act was canceled due to riots that happened as a response (“Dozens Arrested at Sweden Riots Sparked by Planned Quran Burnings,” 2022). Paludan has also desecrated the Quran on multiple occasions in his native Denmark. Although the Danish government has recently proposed a bill that would ban “improper treatment of objects of significant religious significance to a religious community”, the act is considered legal since 2017 as the Danish legislators revoked a 334-year-old blasphemy law forbidding public insults against a religion (Wilford, 2017; Kennedy, 2019; Al Jazeera, 2023c).

The Re-introduction of Blasphemy Law?

This burning incident ignited conversations about reevaluating the law that forbids or punishes expressions seen as disrespectful to beliefs, deities, or sacred objects, commonly referred to as the “blasphemy law.” (Cliteur & Herrenberg, 2016). Although Sweden is a highly secularized nation, due to the predominantly Lutheran residents, blasphemy law used to be enforced before being repealed in 1970 (Ritter & Olsen, 2023). Sweden’s one infamous case associated with this law was August Strindberg’s. In 1884, he faced blasphemy charges for his writing that expressed the view that the bread and wine in the Eucharist were simply bread and wine, rather than having a sacred nature (Johannsen, 2020). According to this case, blasphemy law provides an instrument to deal with religious sensitivities that are considerably offensive as a criminal act, particularly in an era of heightened religious grievances (Cliteur & Herrenberg, 2016).
At a glance, this law may appear to be “good” as it aligns with the beliefs of a significant portion of the population. However, closer examination reveals that this might not be the case. In Indonesia, we can look at Meiliana’s case. In 2019, she expressed her complaint about the volume of the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) being excessively loud and causing discomfort to her ears. Although she stated that it physically hurt her, she was sentenced to 1.5 years of imprisonment under the blasphemy law (CNN Indonesia, 2018). This case demonstrates how the existence of blasphemy laws can be exploited to punish individuals who merely express legitimate concerns pertaining to religious practices.
Returning to the Momika’s Quran burning incident, similar criticism of blasphemy laws is being raised in this case as well. Many in Sweden argue that the freedom to criticize, even in a manner that may be considered offensive, should be permitted (Ritter & Olsen, 2023). One such advocate is Nils Funcke, a prominent figure in Swedish freedom of speech advocacy, who said that “…it is exceptional and highly inappropriate for the government … to criticize a demonstration carried out by a person who, by all accounts, has acted within the confines of the law, utilizing only their constitutional freedom of expression.” (Ritter & Olsen, 2023). Numerous Swedes share this perspective, believing that blasphemy laws have the potential to curtail freedom of expression instead. Therefore, the current absence of a blasphemy law in Sweden resonates with the values held by many of its citizens. However, considering that exercising freedom of expression itself can cause actual forms of harm to others, could a valid concern like this still warrant careful consideration?

On Human Rights: Freedom of Expression vs Religious Freedom

Freedom of expression, as one of many human rights, has been defended in various democratic societies worldwide; proven by the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the majority of countries in the world. Article 19 of the UDHR ensures that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (UN, 1948). However, upholding freedom of expression is not as easy as saying it. 
The right to express is one crucial key to a functioning society. To illustrate that claim, the majority of people who live in places strongly guaranteeing freedom of speech and religious freedom, such as North America and Europe, are considered to have a good chance to improve their own standard of living (van Bijsterveld, 2000; Wike et al., 2019). To support the argument from another perspective, unrestricted freedom of expression can actually pose a threat to society. For example, minorities, including Muslims, that seek refuge in Europe because of wars in the Middle East, have experienced attacks, like arson and assault, that were triggered by anti-refugee Facebook posts from the far-right Alternative for Germany party (Connor, 2016; Müller & Schwarz, 2017). Attacks of this nature have caused concern to immigrant communities and minority groups who are the main targets of intimidation with the literal purpose of causing fear.
The dilemma between ensuring freedom of expression and religious freedom has resurfaced as Article 7 of the UDHR states, “all are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination” (UN, 1948). As a result, it is particularly difficult to find a middle ground where both freedom of expression and religious freedom can coexist in a non-destructive manner. This has become apparent, especially in Western countries that justify hate speech in the name of “free speech”, like Sweden

How Has the World Reacted to This Polarizing Issue?

Not long after the burning incident, Swedish courts overruled the Swedish police rejection of several applications for similar anti-Quran demonstrations. In response, Iran has postponed its effort to send its new ambassador to Sweden, while Türkiye has yet to approve Sweden’s application to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Reuters, 2023; Ritter & Olsen, 2023). Other Muslim-majority countries, such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, have condemned this incident and urged other countries in the world to take action against hate speech and religious discrimination (Euronews, 2023). Qatar even called for collective measures to prevent such recurrence at the ministerial meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Baku (The Peninsula, 2023). On top of that, Indonesia, the biggest Muslim-majority country and one of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) members has issued statements through its Foreign Minister to “stop abusing freedom of expression” and that “silence means complicity” (Kemlu RI, 2023). Additionally, one noteworthy effort from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights was to pass a resolution in “countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. This resolution was proposed by the OIC with an aim to prevent and prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred that can trigger discrimination, hostility or violence (Al Jazeera, 2023b; Kemlu RI, 2023).


Freedom of expression serves as a cornerstone of democracy. Under the umbrella of this fundamental right, people are allowed to express themselves, even through criticism which has the potential to cause discomfort or offense to others. Yet, as we consider the limitations of this freedom, it becomes imperative to carefully assess its benefits and drawbacks. This article argues that enforcing blasphemy laws essentially entails undermining the very essence of freedom of expression. Refraining from implementing blasphemy laws, however, does not necessarily mean one can intentionally cause harm to others because of the universal right to freedom of expression. In the end, we can still challenge opposing ideas with our own thoughts, as long as our freedom of expression remains protected. 
This article believes that the most ideal approach to counter different ideologies is through constructive dialogue with equal standing to seek optimal, feasible solutions. Consequently, prohibiting criticism should not be permitted as it can impede our progress toward improvement. Nevertheless, when engaging in criticism, we must also uphold human rights and acknowledge people’s right to live comfortably. Criticism should be pursued while ensuring that the well-being of individuals is respected. Let us cultivate an environment of healthy dialogue for the betterment of our world.


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