The Conversation

Quran burning in Sweden prompts debate on freedom of expression vs incitement of hatred

The Swedish government is concerned about national security following several incidents involving the burning of the Quran that have provoked demonstrations and outrage from Muslim-majority countries.

The spate of Quran-burning incidents followed an act of desecration by far-right activist Rasmus Paludan on Jan. 21, 2023, in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. On Aug. 25, Denmark’s government said it would “criminalize” desecration of religious objects and moved a bill banning the burning of scriptures.

While freedom of expression is a fundamental human right in liberal democracies, the right to express one’s opinion can become complex when expressing one’s views clashes with the religious and cultural beliefs of others and when this rhetoric veers into hate speech.

As a scholar of European studies, I’m interested in how modern European societies are trying to navigate the fine line between freedom of expression and the need to prevent incitement of hatred; a few are introducing laws specifically addressing hate speech.

Several countries in Europe retain blasphemy laws, but their approaches are highly varied. Often the laws may not prevent present-day acts like dishonoring of religious texts.

The Quran burnings in Sweden and Denmark, aren’t random – they’re part of a broader agenda of targeting Muslims that’s being pushed by far-right groups across Europe.

In many European countries, lawmakers and others are asking whether these book burnings should be seen as exercises of free expression or more as incitement based on religion.

A few countries are introducing new legislation to curb hate speech against religious communities. For example, in 2006 England got rid of the blasphemy law and introduced The Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which makes it an offense to stir up religious hatred. After repealing its blasphemy law in 2020, Ireland has been discussing the introduction of a hate speech law, which will criminalize any communication or behavior that is likely to incite violence or hatred.

The police argued that the Quran burning wasn’t just about religion but specifically targeted the Muslim community. This was evident, according to the authorities, as the incident took place in front of a mosque during the Islamic holiday of Eid, setting it apart from other burnings that took place outside of the Swedish Royal Palace, the Turkish and Iraqi embassies and other public spaces. Because of the existing hate speech law focusing on incitement against minorities rather than religions, the activist received a fine from the police.

In recent weeks, some have called for a stricter application of the hate speech law and have demanded a ban on all Quran-burning events for implicitly inciting hatred against Muslims.

This discussion isn’t limited to Europe alone. Even in the U.S., there’s an ongoing debate about the boundaries of free speech. The First Amendment of the Constitution allows free speech, which some can interpret as the right to burn holy books.

As societies change, I believe it has become important to recognize when freedom of speech has turned into promoting hatred. Figuring out where this boundary lies, understanding the standards applied and uncovering potential biases can spark important conversations. While a solution that applies to every single country may not exist, it’s essential to engage in this dialogue, recognizing its complexity and the varying perspectives across societies.


Armin Langer, University of Florida

Categories Opinion The Conversation