The Platform

Protestors outside Sweden's embassy in London following the burning of the Quran in Stockholm. (Loredana Sangiuliano)

Can or should anything be done to prevent Quran burnings in Western countries?

On June 28, an event in Sweden marked a tipping point in the strained relations between the Muslim world and two Nordic nations. Salwan Momika, a 37-year-old Christian Iraqi refugee residing in Sweden, incited global outrage when he burned pages of the Quran during the sacred Islamic celebration of Eid al-Adha.

On July 20, an anti-Islam demonstration in Stockholm provoked severe reactions from Arab countries, most notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region’s preeminent Sunni and Shia powers. Both countries summoned Swedish diplomats to express their disapproval.

Just two days later, on July 22, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called for Sweden to deliver those responsible to face justice. Khamenei warned on social media, that Sweden’s perceived support for the Quran desecration was interpreted as an aggressive stance towards the Muslim world.

Simultaneously, protests flared up across the globe, with thousands of Iraqis rallying in Baghdad in response to the Quran burning in Copenhagen by members of the Danish far-right.

On July 23, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a collective body of 57 Muslim-majority countries, took punitive measures against Sweden. The OIC suspended the status of Sweden’s special envoy due to what they perceived as Sweden’s role in facilitating continued abuses against the sanctity of the Quran and Islamic holy symbols.

Just a day later, on July 24, two individuals affiliated with a far-right nationalist group, Danish Patriots, burned a copy of the Quran outside the Iraqi embassy in Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital. They performed the act using a tin foil tray placed next to an Iraqi flag on the ground, later broadcasting their demonstration live on Facebook.

In the aftermath, Iraq’s foreign ministry appealed to European Union countries to reconsider their interpretations of freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate. Danish Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen condemned the act but noted that burning religious holy books was not a crime in Denmark.

The repercussions of these desecrations have reverberated across the Muslim world. Nations including Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Ghana, and Lebanon have witnessed protests, some violent, like the one in Baghdad. Leaders, such as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, denounced the permission given to desecrate the Quran. In Afghanistan, the Taliban halted all Swedish organization activities in response to the events. Pakistan’s national parliament, provincial assemblies, and other Muslim-majority countries have voiced strong condemnation.

In a historical first, social media platforms were used to call for a boycott of Swedish and Danish products. The discourse surrounding these incidents intertwines the protection of Islamic identity within the secular West, attracting right-wing and Islamic political parties keen to mobilize their supporters under the banner of preserving Quranic sanctity.

Despite this, the central question remains: why do Sweden and Denmark allow Quran desecrations? The legality of such acts is tied to the absence of blasphemy laws in these countries. The police in Sweden initially blocked the Quran-burning event due to its sensitive nature, but a lower court overruled this decision, citing the absence of specific legislation criminalizing the act. The Danish government, however, unequivocally denounced the incident. As it stands, of 198 countries worldwide, only 79 have blasphemy laws that penalize acts of desecration. Even in the United States, where the First Amendment safeguards freedom of speech, Quran burning isn’t illegal, exemplified by the 2011 incident where Florida pastor Terry Jones led a Quran-burning event, causing global consternation.

The path forward requires global Muslim organizations like the OIC to work in tandem with local Muslim communities in Sweden and Denmark, advocating for the criminalization of Quran desecration. This endeavor, while fraught with challenges, particularly given the countries’ relatively small Muslim populations, is crucial for preserving Muslim identity. It might necessitate larger Muslim communities in countries such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to spearhead efforts to amend existing laws. While this task is daunting, it’s a crucial step towards upholding the sanctity of the Quran and ensuring respect for religious identities in a secular world.

As a practicing Muslim, maintaining the sanctity of the Quran is fundamental to both my faith and identity.

Sohail Mahmood is an independent political analyst focused on global politics, U.S. foreign policy, governance, and the politics of South and West Asia.