Burning a holy book: the dilemma of free speech

In recent weeks, Sweden has experienced several Quran-burning incidents. These can reinforce anti-religious discourse and politicised campaigns against religious minorities. They can also put Swedish multicultural harmony at risk. Azher Hameed Qamar argues that we must interpret the laws permitting Quran-burnings as being in the best interest of the people

Integration policy in Sweden

The Migrant Integration Policy Index (2020) ranked Sweden among the top scorers in implementing anti-discrimination policies and improving migrants’ quality of life. Swedish integration policies focus on tolerating differences and resisting racism.

With a high number of migrants from Muslim countries, Sweden opted for generous policies to support Muslim migrants. It avoided passing any laws restricting Muslim religious practices. The Church of Sweden also worked for migrants’ social integration, and remained a prominent supporter of a multi-cultural and multi-religious Sweden.

Swedish society and institutions are multicultural; people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds can flourish and contribute to social capital without fear of discrimination. However, recent Quran-burnings in Sweden have prompted me to reflect on the ‘act’ of hate speech and the dilemma of free speech.

Burning holy books

In Sweden, it is legal to burn holy books under free speech law. However, those who wish to do so must seek permission from the police. Recently, a man gained permission to burn the Torah and the Bible in front of the Israeli embassy in Stockholm. The man appeared in public holding the books, but did not burn them. His intention, rather, was to draw attention to the idea that burning holy books is a hate crime that can destroy peace.

Burning holy books is not always an expression of free speech. We might also consider burning holy books a hate crime that symbolises religious discrimination, and persecution. Similarly, some consider burning national flags a hate crime against a specific nation.

Burning holy books is not simply an act of free speech. We might also consider it a hate crime that symbolises religious discrimination, and persecution

Before forming an opinion about whether the burning of holy books is acceptable, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What are the intentions of the individuals who burn the holy books?
  • What are they protesting against?
  • How much do they know about the holy book and its content?
  • What are their disagreements with the book?
  • Why do they think burning is the best response to those disagreements?

Knowing the answers to these questions is crucial to understanding the motives behind the burning of a holy book.

The Swedish police have, at times, prohibited Quran-burning as a security risk. But in most instances, they allow it. Rather than carefully considering what it is the demonstrators want, the police simply invoke the free speech law, and give permission for public burnings.

The togetherness of multicultural societies

In societies made up of people from diverse religious or ethnic backgrounds, a ‘togetherness’ develops through understanding, acceptance, respect, and flexibility.

Absolute freedom to burn holy books with the intention of targeting religions and their followers risks challenging — and perhaps destroying — this togetherness. It reinforces anti-religious discourse and politicised campaigns against religious minorities. Extremists, inspired by the Quran-burnings and their media coverage, may then feel encouraged to commit violence against religious gatherings or individuals.

Sweden’s dilemma

The Quran-burnings have ignited debates about what constitutes free speech and hate speech. Free speech is a fundamental value of Swedish society. However, the Quran-burnings have exposed discrepancies between free speech and minority rights. This has triggered unrest in the Western and Muslim world, and plunged Sweden into a diplomatic crisis.

Minorities’ lives are shaped by their social experiences and their interactions with the social and political environment of their country

We should not see these incidents as individuals practicing free speech. Minorities’ lives are shaped by their social experiences and their interactions with the social and political environment of the country. If such demonstrations incite hatred and cause distress, minorities' psycho-social wellbeing is at risk.

The absolute freedom to burn holy books

Quran-burning is an extremist act. It triggers violent protests that raise serious security threats. In Sweden, the absolute freedom to burn holy books suggests that ‘free speech’ takes precedence over respect for minorities’ religious values.

If ‘free speech’ does not have a limit, religious/cultural values, associated collective sentiments, and diversity are meaningless. A progressive multicultural society must, therefore, prioritise interpreting the law in the best interest of the people, and their holistic well-being. It must draw a line beyond which the ‘law about free speech’ will respect the ‘law about hate speech’.

Media responsibility

It's worth noting that the people burning the Quran were not Swedish. This suggests that outsiders may be exploiting Sweden's free-speech laws. Swedish and Danish friends tell me that some have tried to distract public attention from demonstrations by using music or singing.

Unfortunately, rather than covering these brave attempts at de-escalating the situation, the media have instead focused disproportionate attention on the people burning the Quran. Such insensitivity intensifies social and political tensions.

Sweden should revisit its free-speech laws in line with its contemporary multicultural society and prosocial approach to welcoming minorities

The media should present diverse voices, educate people, and contribute to multicultural democratic values. Rights and responsibilities should be practiced together. A right to freedom of speech carries a responsibility towards peace, education, and togetherness.

If public demonstrations of hatred are allowed to take place, media coverage should be in the best interest of the multicultural society, and consistent with a country's other anti-discrimination policies. Sweden should thus revisit its free speech laws in line with its contemporary multicultural society and prosocial approach to welcoming minorities.

Our responsibility

Many shared social activities in Sweden, such as sports, festivals, and language cafés, connect people and shape their social world. Multicultural societies provide the best environment in which to learn the art of living together.

To make all citizens feel they truly belong, we must coexist with a shared sense of responsibility, and an acceptance of our differences. We should strengthen inclusivity by bringing people together. As members of a flourishing multicultural democracy, are Swedes ready to live together without being infected by hate speech? As they say in Swedish: vara tillsammans (be together).

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Azher Hameed Qamar
Azher Hameed Qamar
Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Social Work, Lund University

Azher is a writer, anthropologist, and teacher.

He obtained his doctorate from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Azher's research focuses on social resilience, migration, and social integration.

His postdoctoral study is about the social resilience of young adult migrants in Sweden; phenomenological research exploring young adult migrants' lived experiences.

He recently published a paper in Geoforum entitled Conceptualizing social resilience in the context of migrants' lived experiences, which deals with the challenges of conceptualising social resilience in migration studies, and provided a definition of social resilience in this context.


He tweets @AzherQamar

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2 comments on “Burning a holy book: the dilemma of free speech”

  1. The definition of minority used in this article, an homogeneous group with common interests, is dangerous; as if everybody withing the immigrant diaspora care about quran burning...

    Asking for ex muslims, atheists, humanists and all the freethinkers who continue to live in fear, anxiety, stress, isolation, grief and secrecy while up to 13 Muslim countries and countless muslim families punish us for questioning, disbelieving and leaving islam. Minorities' psycho-social wellbeing is at risk, as well. So why one should be more important than the other?

    Every day is apostasy day when we don’t have our human rights to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom from religion.

  2. The author provides a compelling case for Sweden as a multicultural society. "Swedish society and institutions are multicultural; people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds can flourish and contribute to social capital without fear of discrimination". This of course a very nice description of my country but it is not entirely correct. It is true that laws and formal institutions do not discriminate and there is some work to act on racism, but immigration and integration is poorly managed. There are huge socio-economic cleavages between ethnic groups (Swedes and migrants in general) as well as a great deal of racism and discrimination in society and in the job markets. In the last couple of years, social democrats, conservatives, and right-wing parties have been working towards stricter control and regulation that disrupt the old image of Sweden as a generous, open and multicultural society.

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