Sweden, under pressure from Islamists angered by recent Quran burnings, is embroiled in a nationwide debate over whether to curtail its long and storied tradition of constitutionally-protected freedom of expression and introduce a blasphemy law. The free speech versus security trade-off is aimed at staving off reprisals from Muslim extremists in Sweden and elsewhere.
Swedish authorities took the first step in that direction on February 8, when, in a reversal of longstanding policy, they refused to allow 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. Both bans are being appealed in court.
The Swedish Police Authority (Polisen), citing the Public Order Act (Ordningslag), said that from now on, as a rule, all public Quran burnings will be prohibited. An internal police document leaked to Swedish media revealed that the burning ban applies only to the Quran and not to other holy books, such as the Bible or the Torah.
The decision to prohibit further Quran burnings was made after the Swedish Security Service (Säkerhetspolisen, Säpo) warned that Sweden and Swedish interests abroad are facing "serious threats" from "violent Islamism globally."
A Quran-burning rally in Stockholm on January 21 enraged the Turkish government and jeopardized Sweden's bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is seeking reelection on May 14, 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.
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson distanced his government from the Quran burning. "Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of democracy," he tweeted. "But what is legal is not necessarily appropriate." He added that "burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act" and expressed "sympathy for all Muslims who are offended."
Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, kingmaker in Sweden's coalition government, described Kristersson's comments as "very, very troubling." The government, he wrote in a Facebook post, "should in every situation unequivocally stand up for our Swedish freedom of expression." He added that "Sweden has a domestic Islamist threat that cannot be underestimated" and that it is "extremely dangerous" for the government to "understand" and "feel sorry for" the forces in Sweden that, "with reference to religious dogmas want to abolish our freedom of expression."
The leader of Sweden's Islamist Nyans Party, Mikail Yüksel, flatly rejected Kristersson's attempt at conciliation. "Ulf Kristersson says that everyone needs to contribute to cooling down the temperature," he tweeted. "Unfortunately, this is not possible as long as Sweden insists on the sadistic interpretation of freedom of expression. We need to take radical measures: Change the constitution and ban the Quran burnings!"
Yüksel, a Swedish politician of Turkish origin who is close to Erdoğan's government, has called for Sweden's membership of NATO to be linked to the enactment of a blasphemy law. "Time for Turkey to make tougher demands on Sweden and criminalize Quran burnings," he tweeted. He also said on Turkish television that "Sweden's Muslims expect Turkey to raise the situation of Muslims in the NATO negotiations." Yüksel added that he had requested a formal meeting with Erdoğan to discuss the Quran burnings and "tell him more about what is really going on in Sweden."
The Quran burning in Sweden has inspired similar acts in other European countries. On January 22, anti-Islam activists tore up and trampled a copy of the Quran outside the House of Representatives in the Hague, the administrative capital of the Netherlands. On January 27, copies of the Quran were burned in front of a mosque and outside the Turkish embassy in Copenhagen, the Danish capital.
On January 30, police in Finland, where a law prohibiting blasphemy is embedded in the criminal code, warned that burning the Quran in public is an offense punishable by up to one year in prison. On February 2, Norwegian authorities banned a planned Quran burning rally outside the Turkish Embassy in Oslo after Norway's Police Security Service (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste, PST) warned that the protest could make Norway a target for jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Both groups recently threatened to retaliate for the Quran burnings. On February 7, Islamic State-Khurasan, in a new edition of its English-language magazine, Voice of Khurasan, vowed to exact revenge for what it described as "blasphemy in broad daylight" in the "name of freedom of speech." On February 10, Al-Qaeda released a new issue of One Ummah Magazine, which called on all those "capable of jihad" to avenge the Quran burnings. It stated that "we must all strive to change Western laws and constitutions" by means of a "deterrence strategy" based on the perpetual threat of "jihadi military action" to "prevent the recurrence of these abuses."
The looming threat of violence is shaping the debate over free speech in Sweden as a compromise between free speech and security. Some, including Christian leaders from various denominations, argue that Sweden, which has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe in percentage terms, should restrict offensive speech to reduce religious and social tensions. Others insist that freedom of expression is sacrosanct and should not be restricted for any reason. A February 3 opinion poll commissioned by TV4 Nyheterna showed that Swedes are evenly divided on prohibiting Quran burnings: 42% were in favor of such a ban while 43% were opposed.
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." Sofie Löwenmark, a Swedish journalist who covers Islamism, agreed. She said that calls for a ban on Quran burnings is a smokescreen to hide the larger objective: a ban on legitimate criticism of Islam.
The political editor of the newspaper Smålandsposten, Fredrik Haage, argued that the government's decision to prohibit further Quran burnings shows that the Islamists have already won this battle. "The freedom of expression has given way to the threat of violence," he wrote. "Until the decision is eventually overturned by the administrative court, Sweden has introduced a blasphemy law that covers the Quran. Specifically, the Quran, not the Bible or the Torah."
Soeren Kern is a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow.