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Sweden ponders freedom of speech vs religion

İpek Eser/YJI

STOCKHOLM – With a newly increased terrorism threat level after a handful of Quran burnings, Sweden is grappling with the balance between freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

The Swedish Security Service issued a domestic terrorism warning in August, raising the threat level from a three to a four on five-point scale. The last time the threat level was this high was in 2017, just before a terrorist attack in central Stockholm killed five people.

The security move followed outrage among Islamic nations that were upset over a decision by Swedish courts that allowed the burnings.                     

Sweden has freedom of expression laws which for years have permitted Quran burnings, among other controversial actions. The conflict created discourse about Sweden’s law and the road ahead.

Professor Wilhelm Persson, who teaches law at Lund University in Sweden, explained that Sweden is by no means the only country that permits burning religious scripture.

Other Scandinavian countries, he said, also have wide freedom of expression laws, making it unclear exactly why Quran burnings have sprung up in Sweden. 

But the nature of freedom of expression laws in Sweden might be attributable to the uptick in the Quran burnings, according to Persson.

The broader constitutional protections span across the country’s laws, forming the basis of much discourse about the Quran burnings. 

There are already some existing limitations to freedom of expression, such as legal repercussions for hate crimes, disorderly public conduct and privacy regulations.

The most widely discussed of these in relation to the Quran burnings is hate crimes.

It’s possible for individual cases of Quran burning to be deemed unlawful, Persson said, if “in relation to the burnings, the individual has not only spoken out against a religion but also the followers of that religion.”

Isabel Shen/YJI

But assessing this becomes difficult because religion is often integral to people’s identity.

“We must make an informed overall decision based on what has been said and what was actually expressed by the person claiming to criticize a religion and not its followers,” said Persson.

But so far, the threshold for the courts to deem an act a hate crime is very high, making it difficult to limit Quran burnings under the present laws.

If the burning is not considered a hate crime, it could still be illegal under laws against disorderly conduct, according to Persson.

But Persson said that would raise questions about “which acts count as disorderly conduct warranting a punishment, and how big a role does public perception play in this?”

There does not seem to be any clear answer.

It was not always like this. Sweden had a form of blasphemy laws up until the 1970s, Persson said, which was then abolished and replaced with the current laws.

“Sometimes, we get the impression that parliament is actively stating that the Quran burnings are a positive thing and should be allowed, but that is not the case,” Persson said. 

So the question remaining is what can be done and whether we can foresee legal reform.

This is a highly political issue and it is hard to predict the outcome.

Though Sweden is formally not going to bend to international pressure, it does admittedly have some influence, according to Persson.

But its extent is limited and the only real reform currently possible will depend on the court judgements in each case. 

Persson said it’s difficult to determine whether freedom of expression – such as a Quran burning – should be allowed without looking at the context of an individual case. 

Burning the Quran and destroying religious texts does not necessarily strengthen the political process nor help uncover the truth, the professor said, but it does raise questions about individual liberties.

It asks the nation how it balances people’s rights with their responsibilities and ultimately, what fundamental values Sweden wishes to uphold and represent.  

Nargis Babar is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International. She wrote this story.

İpek Eser is a Senior Illustrator with Youth Journalism International and made the cover image.

Isabel Shen is an Illustrator with Youth Journalism International and made the drawing in the center of the text.

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