By burning the Quran, extremists and oddballs are plunging Sweden from one diplomatic crisis to the next. But the government finds it literally impossible to ban the actions. In the Swedish capital, one often hears something of “difficult situation”, “serious situation”, “major threat” – the Swedish parties have seldom been so unanimous in their assessment. Of course, opinions differ widely on the question of how to defuse this very situation. What about the legal situation in other European countries?
The Quran is sacred writing for Muslims. Nevertheless, the state has little opportunity to take action against his desecration. In Sweden, the dilemma of a liberal statehood can be viewed in a particularly oppressive way. Right-wing extremists and refugees in Sweden who fled the brutal regimes in the MENA region publicly burn the Quran, the Swedish government condemns the acts “in the strongest possible terms” – but the courts rule that the actions are protected by fundamental rights. “The constitutional protection of freedom of expression takes precedence,” summed up a police spokeswoman in June. It was only determined for violating the ban on open fire in Stockholm. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the Swedish embassy was stormed by angry demonstrators. Nevertheless, the Scandinavian country is defending its freedom rights, and the Quran has also been burned in Denmark.
More and more Quran burnings, most recently in front of the Iraqi embassy and in front of a mosque in Stockholm. As a result, the Swedish embassy in Iraq was stormed twice, and the second time the demonstrators set fire to the building. The Swedish ambassador was expelled and the staff flown to Stockholm. At the same time, Iraq withdrew its own ambassador from Stockholm, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened that such actions could further delay Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s NATO membership.
In Sweden, however, it is up to the police to decide whether a registered demonstration will be allowed or not. Earlier this year, it rejected one of the requests, citing Sweden’s right to assembly, which gives the police the power to ban a demonstration “if there is a risk to security and public order.” The Stockholm administrative court reversed this decision, after all, as a professor of international law at Stockholm University explains, “the police did not adequately explain what specific security problem was to be expected at the site of the demonstration.” An appeals court upheld this second verdict.
Although the man who then carried out the burning was charged with hate speech, the public prosecutor dropped the investigation with the argument that the burning of the Quran only represents a serious disregard for Islam and not for Muslims as a group of people. According to the lawyer, who is a Muslim himself, “that may sound like a strange argument, but it shows the general attitude in Sweden towards freedom of expression as an unrestricted right that can only be restricted in exceptional cases.”
Whatever the confused message behind the burning of holy scriptures is, in any case the perpetrator wants to make a kind of critical, negative statement about Islam. One is thus entering the field of freedom of opinion, i.e. a basic right that has a centuries-long conflict behind it, especially with religion and the church. Today, in the 21st century, it can be stated that the conflict has been decided: in favor of freedom of expression.
In other Western democracies, burning scriptures is not allowed – Finland simply retained the ban on violating religious freedom when Sweden abolished it in 1970. Not a single Quran has ever been burned there. Most recently, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borell, wrote that the EU “resolutely rejects any form of incitement to religious hatred. Respect for diversity is a fundamental value of the EU. This also includes respect for other religious communities.”
The discussion in Sweden now revolves around the question of whether the existing law is sufficient to prohibit further burnings. Finally, the passage about the “danger to public order” could also be extended and referred to national security with reference to the international protests. The Swedish state security agency Säpo wrote that the security situation had “deteriorated further due to the development of events” and that the threat level was three “increased” on a five-point scale. According to Säpo, increased threat means that there are “actors who have both the intention and the ability to carry out a terrorist attack”.
The second option would be to reform the existing laws. Justice Minister Gunnar Strömmer is currently examining this. According to a recent survey, the majority of the population is against such a change, after all, according to the main argument, one should not give in to the pressure from Islamic states, which are mainly dictatorships that have no understanding of the delicate freedom of expression in Sweden.
Now a government must not be guided by opinion polls. But even if Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson were in favor of such a reform, the law could only be changed with a parliamentary majority. However, the opposition is largely against it – and in this case finds itself in a coalition with the Sweden Democrats (SD). The right-wing populist SD, on whose support the governing coalition is dependent, see the current debate about changing the law as pandering to Islamist dictatorships.
The last hope for a change remains with Sweden’s highest court. The latter would then have to decide again whether burning the Quran does not constitute a crime of incitement to hatred. Such a procedure could change the existing legal situation, since all international legal documents including the European Convention on Human Rights grant states the right to restrict freedom of speech when this is necessary for the national security of the country and its citizens.
What about other European countries that could sooner or later be confronted with similar actions? In the German criminal code, paragraph 166, which is already outdated, criminalizes insults against religious denominations. But the provision has long been marginalized under the German constitution, and there are hardly more than a dozen convictions per year, because its requirements are narrower than one might think at first glance: the paragraph neither protects believers from hurting their religious feelings nor from insulting God – or Allah. Because blasphemy is no longer punishable. Only “particularly serious disparaging statements” are punishable, as it says in a criminal law commentary. And this only if they are capable of disturbing the “public peace”. The wordless burning of the Quran, which is not accompanied by inflammatory agitation, should not be punishable in Germany either.
The idea behind this is that a free society has to endure a battle of opinions that is being fought with a heavy hand. In 2009, the German Constitutional Court said that “protecting citizens from subjective concerns caused by being confronted with provocative opinions and ideologies” does not justify restricting freedom of expression, nor does the “preservation of social or ethical views that are considered fundamental”. . Even the feared “poisoning of the intellectual climate” is, taken in and of itself, no reason for a ban on statements.
The nearly hundred-year-old trial against the artist George Grosz shows how important it can be that criticism is not banned because of religious feelings. He, a staunch opponent of the war, had published a portfolio from which three sheets caused offense, including the emaciated Christ on the cross, wearing a gas mask and soldiers’ boots. Caption: “Shut up and keep serving.” The case went through the authorities, at that time blasphemy was still punishable. The Reichsgericht overturned an initial acquittal and suggested to the district court for the new trial that the depiction could be seen as a crude form of disregard: “The law also wants to protect the simple feeling of simple, religiously minded people.”
In 1930, a court acquitted Grosz in the second trial, because from its point of view the simple feeling pointed in a completely different direction. The painter’s series of pictures contrasted the war zealots with the martyred, it was like a cry from all the drawings that the tortured were “thrust into the torment and death of war”. Including Christ, the weakest among them. That should mean: the description may not be comforting, but it formulates a clear criticism of the warmongers, including those in the ranks of the church, by the way. “Whoever walks with the powerful, who fights alongside those in power, will not be crucified.” A court put it so boldly in 1930.
The question remains whether the liberal state could not put a stop to the burning of the Quran after all. German lawyers see the legal system as well-armed, at least for extreme cases. If such rallies lead to violent protests that can hardly be controlled, then they could possibly be banned under the rules of a “police emergency”. The conditions are very tight, the police must first do everything in their power to make the action possible.
But similar to tough left-wing autonomous protests against right-wing extremist marches, the authorities could pull the ripcord here at some point – and still issue an effective ban.
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