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HomeCrime and JusticeQuran Burnings in Sweden: What Could Be Done to Prevent Them?

Quran Burnings in Sweden: What Could Be Done to Prevent Them?

The Quran burnings of 2022 have sparked violent riots across Sweden, threatened embassies in the Muslim world, and hindered the country’s NATO application. But what can be done to prevent them?

Is it legal to burn the Quran in Sweden?

According to former Supreme Court judge Göran Lambertz, probably not. He told The Local that if someone expresses hatred, disgust, or disregard for an ethnic or religious group, it is a crime. The case of Danish activist Rasmus Paludan— who burns the holy book and refers to Africa and the Middle East as “the low-IQ countries”— is particularly clear-cut.

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Under Sweden’s hate law, hets mot folkgrupp, his protests would be a crime. Despite this, Paludan has so far escaped prosecution.

So why can’t police stop the Quran burnings?

Under the Public Order Act, which governs police power to issue or refuse permits for public demonstrations, police may only refuse a permit if it is “necessary to do so with respect to public order or safety at the gathering or, as a direct consequence of the gathering, in its immediate surroundings”. It is not enough for them to suspect that a crime will be committed.

This is why Sweden’s administrative court ruled in April that police were wrong to refuse a permit to burn the Quran to Salwan Momika in February. According to lawyer Eva-Lotta Hedin, the court did not consider that the threat presented was “sufficiently concrete and connected to the gathering in question”. For this reason, when Momika applied again this month, police had no choice but to grant his request.

What could Sweden’s police and courts do to stop Quran burnings?

Lambertz believes that police should have been quicker to prosecute Paludan under Sweden’s hate laws for burning the Quran back in Easter 2022. He also suggested that there should be more clarity from the Supreme Court on the legality of burning or desecrating the Quran.

Christer Mattsson, director of the Segerstedt Institute at Gothenburg University, argued that the government could change the Public Order Law to give police greater powers to shut down demonstrations where a crime is taking place and add a clause banning demonstrations within 100m of a religious minority’s place of worship.

Is there any need to change the wording of Sweden’s hate speech law itself?

According to Lambertz, there isn’t. The hets mot folkgrupp exception in Sweden’s free speech law makes it a crime to express hatred of Muslims as a group but not criticism or insults toward Islam as a religion. He believes that courts should be able to determine when burning or desecrating the Quran is a hate act— just as they have ruled on use of Nazi Swastika symbol— and that changing the language of law is unnecessary.

To what extent does Sweden’s constitution prevent parliament from passing laws to make it easier to stop Quran burnings?

Not as much as many assume. While freedom of assembly and freedom to demonstrate are protected in the Instrument of Government, these rights can be restricted with new laws without changing any constitutional laws. The Instrument of Government states that restrictions are only allowed if they are “acceptable in a democratic society” and do not threaten “the free shaping of opinion as one of the fundaments of democracy”.

The biggest obstacle is time: any changes are unlikely to come into force before this crisis has passed.

Quran burnings have caused significant unrest both within Sweden and abroad this year, raising difficult questions about freedom of expression and safety for religious minorities. Although some changes may take time, it appears there are several steps that could be taken by both police and parliament to reduce their frequency in future years.

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