STOCKHOLM: There is limited political will in Sweden to ban Quran burnings that have upset large parts of the Muslim world and it would be complicated to do even if there were backing for such a move, experts and politicians said on Friday.
The Swedish Embassy in Baghdad was stormed and set alight in the early hours of Thursday by supporters of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in anticipation of a burning of the Muslim holy book outside the Iraqi Embassy in Stockholm, the latest of several such acts in Sweden in the past few years.
Iraq later withdrew its charge d’affaires in Stockholm and Sweden said it had temporarily moved its seconded embassy staff and operations from Baghdad to Sweden for safety reasons.
Sweden’s laws, current politics and social traditions mean such incidents are unlikely to be halted any time soon.
Swedish courts have ruled that police cannot stop burnings of holy scriptures. While the two latest Quran burnings could be tested in court for inciting hate, it is widely believed the act is protected by the constitution’s far-reaching freedom of speech laws.
To change the constitution is a lengthy process that requires a vote in parliament, then a general election, and then another vote in parliament.
Even so, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson’s government said last week it would examine if there was reason to change the Public Order Act to make it possible for police to stop Quran burnings, amid concerns over national security.
The issue of Quran burnings has potentially jeopardised Sweden’s accession to Nato. Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan has previously warned that Sweden would not be accepted into the military alliance if Quran burnings took place there.
Turkey, alongside Hungary, has so far held up Sweden’s bid — launched in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — although Erdogan said earlier this month that he would send the Nordic country’s Nato application to parliament.
The 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation introduced a resolution that passed in the United Nations Human Rights Council on July 12 calling for states to review their laws that prevent prosecution of “religious hatred”.
Deputy prime minister Ebba Busch of the Christian Democrats said earlier this month the Sweden alone determined its legislation and would not be influenced by other countries’ faiths or laws.
“Sweden does not bend its back to Islamism. Burning scriptures is reprehensible but not illegal,” she tweeted on July 7 after a Quran burning outside a Stockholm mosque.
Any potential law change that would make such acts illegal is also highly unlikely to pass because the minority government is dependent on the support of the Sweden Democrats, the second biggest party in parliament after last year’s elections, which is anti-immigrant and critical of Islam.
“The Sweden Democrats have not considered introducing any such law in Sweden, nor do we intend to support any such legislation if put forward in parliament,” Sweden Democrat Party secretary Richard Jomshof told Reuters in an emailed statement.
‘Good luck’ changing law
Quran burnings are permitted in Sweden, Denmark and Norway but not in neighbouring Finland where desecration of holy scriptures in public is illegal. Sweden had a similar law but removed it in the 1970s.
Sweden has laws banning hate speech against ethnic, national and religious groups and people on grounds of sexual orientation. However, burning holy scriptures has thus far not qualified as hate speech but has been seen as acceptable criticism.
Journalist and freedom of speech expert Nils Funcke said changes to the Public Order Act as mooted by the government would be very hard to introduce and would likely clash with Sweden’s constitutionally protected freedom of assembly.
“Good luck writing such a law. There won’t be many demonstrations left if we listen to threats from extremist organisations in countries like Iran or Iraq,” he told Reuters.
“And how would you be able to have a demonstration against someone like (Russian president Vladimir) Putin? That would surely endanger Sweden’s safety,” he added.
A 2022 Gallup poll found that Sweden was the country in the world with the highest percentage of citizens stating they do not believe in God. Sweden abolished laws that made it punishable to criticise or mock religion and the royal family in the 1970s.
“It is our tradition,” Funcke told Reuters. “The argument was that there was no reason for religion to be free from criticism when all other areas of society could be discussed freely,” he said.