Denmark’s parliament adopts law banning Quran burnings

Activists take part in a demonstration in Karachi on July 9, 2023, as they protest against the burning of the Quran outside a Stockholm mosque that outraged Muslims around the world [File: Rizwan Tabassum/AFP]

Denmark’s parliament has passed a bill that makes it illegal to burn copies of the Quran in public places after protests in Muslim nations over the desecration of Islam’s holy book raised security concerns, Al Jazeera and news agencies report.

The bill, which prohibits “inappropriate treatment of writings with significant religious importance for a recognised religious community”, was passed with 94 votes in favour and 77 opposed in the 179-seat Folketing on Thursday.

In practical terms, it will be forbidden to burn, tear or otherwise defile holy texts publicly or in videos intended to be disseminated widely.

Those who break the law risk a fine or up to two years in prison. Before it takes effect, Queen Margrethe needs to formally sign it. That is expected to happen this month.

The purpose of the law is to counter “the systematic mockery” that, among other things, has contributed to intensifying the threat of terrorism in Denmark, the Ministry of Justice said.

Growing protests

Denmark and Sweden experienced a series of public protests this year in which anti-Islam activists burned or otherwise damaged copies of the Quran, sparking tensions with Muslims and triggering demands that the governments ban the practice.

Hundreds of protesters tried to march to the Danish embassy in Baghdad‘s fortified Green Zone in late July after a call by influential Shia religious and political leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

In response to the worsened security situation, the Scandinavian country temporarily tightened border controls.

From July 21 to October 24, 483 book burnings or flag burnings were recorded in Denmark, according to national police figures.

The bill, initially announced at the end of August, was amended after criticism that its first draft limited freedom of expression and would be difficult to enforce. It was originally planned to cover objects of significant religious importance.

Denmark has sought to strike a balance between constitutionally protected freedom of speech, including the right to criticise religion, and national security over fears that Quran burnings would trigger attacks.

Domestic critics in Sweden and Denmark have argued that any limitations on criticising religion, including by burning Qurans, undermine hard-fought liberal freedoms in the region.

“History will judge us harshly for this and with good reason. … What it all comes down to is whether a restriction on freedom of speech is determined by us or whether it is dictated from the outside,” said Inger Stojberg, leader of the anti-immigration Denmark Democrats party, who opposed the ban.

Denmark’s centrist coalition government has argued the new rules will have only a marginal impact on free speech and criticising religion in other ways remains legal.

In 2006, Denmark was at the centre of widespread anger in the Muslim world after a Danish newspaper posted 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, including one wearing a bomb as a turban. Muslims consider images of the prophet as being sacrilegious and encouraging idolatry. The images escalated into violent anti-Denmark protests by Muslims worldwide.

Sweden, too, is considering ways to legally limit Quran desecrations but is taking a different approach than Denmark.

It is looking into whether police should factor in national security when deciding on applications for public protests.

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