By Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Jacob Gronholt-pedersen
COPENHAGEN, (Reuters) – Anti-Islam activists in Denmark and Sweden have burnt and damaged several copies of the Koran in recent months, prompting outrage in the Muslim world and demands the Nordic governments ban such acts. Both governments have condemned the burnings and said they are considering new laws that could stop them.
But domestic critics say freedom of speech and expression is protected in their constitutions and any move to change that would undermine prized freedoms.
WHO IS BURNING THE KORAN AND WHY?
At least three of the actions in Sweden over the past month have been led by Salwan Momika, a refugee from Iraq who says he wants to protest against the whole institution of Islam and ban its holy book.
Around the time of his protests, a far-right activist group called the Danish Patriots mounted its own anti-Muslim demonstrations in neighbouring Denmark, saying it was taking a stand against what it sees as the “Islamisation” of Nordic societies.
At least ten copies of the Koran have been burned in Denmark over the past week.
Danish-Swedish far-right activist Rasmus Paludan, who has been behind sporadic Koran burnings since 2017, has carried out more in both countries this year, saying he is angered by Turkey’s opposition to Sweden’s application to join NATO.
WHY HAVE THE BURNINGS CAUSED SUCH OUTRAGE?
Intentionally burning the Koran is seen by Muslims as a blasphemous and insulting act because they consider the Islamic holy book to be the literal word of God.
Desecrating a Koran is seen as a grave offence worthy of severe punishment. Muslims believe the Koran is the word of God transmitted to the Prophet Mohammad by the Angel Gabriel in Arabic.
Muslims treat a printed Koran with great reverence. In Muslim tradition, the believer should be in a state of ritual purity before touching it. The Koran should not be put on the floor and nothing should be placed on top of it.
WHAT IS AT THE HEART OF THE ISSUE IN SWEDEN AND DENMARK?
Denmark and Sweden are among the most secular and liberal countries in the world, and have long allowed trenchant public criticism of religions.
Politicians across Denmark’s political spectrum say an outright ban would compromise citizens’ constitutionally inscribed right to freedom of expression.
“I would never burn books, but I will fight for other people to have the right to do it,” Susie Jessen, a lawmaker for the right-wing Denmark Democrats party, told Reuters.
WHAT ARE SWEDEN AND DENMARK DOING NOW?
Nevertheless, both Sweden and Denmark say they are examining ways to legally limit burnings to de-escalate tensions with Muslim nations.
They have both already faced significant retaliation.
Angry crowds stormed Sweden’s embassy in Baghdad in July. Both this week said they were facing increasing security threats.
Their ambassadors have been called in for rebukes and warnings across the Middle East. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said he will work to get Sweden’s application to join NATO approved, but also warned it wouldn’t happen as long as copies of the Koran were being burnt in Sweden.
WHAT NEXT FOR THE LAW IN DENMARK AND SWEDEN?
The Danish and Swedish governments say freedom of speech is already limited to some extent – it is illegal to insult someone over their ethnicity or sexual orientation.
But neither country has have legislation that can be used to forbid burning Korans. Sweden scrapped its blasphemy law in 1970, Denmark in 2017. In Sweden, police must issue a permit to protesters but can only refuse one if public safety at the protest site is compromised.
In Denmark, protesters are only required to inform the police they are demonstrating. The Swedish government is looking at whether its laws on maintaining public order could be modified. It has ruled out making it illegal to burn holy scriptures.
The Danish government said on Sunday it would seek to find a “legal tool” that could enable authorities to intervene in such protests, if deemed to entail “significant negative consequences for Denmark, not least with regard to security”.