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Sweden is considering law change to stop public Koran burnings, Aftonbladet reports | Reuters

An Iraqi immigrant to Sweden burned the Koran outside a Stockholm mosque last week, causing outrage in the Muslim world and condemnation from the pope. The Swedish Security services said such action left the country less safe.

The police denied several applications earlier this year for protests that were set to include burning the Koran, citing security concerns, but courts have since overturned the police's decisions, saying such acts are protected by Sweden's far-reaching freedom of speech laws.

Sweden's minister of justice said on Thursday that the government is analysing the situation and whether the law needs to be changed to allow the police to deny such requests.

"We have to ask ourselves whether the current order is good or whether there is reason to reconsider it," Strommer told Aftonbladet.

Any cynics seeing any linkage to getting Turkey aboard with Sweden NATO accession?: shame on your such conspirational thinking ;-)

But that still leaves me with the question - as an agnostic/atheist - of how useful it is to protect such acts in the name of freedom of speech:

  • does burning holy books protect against government oppression? Hah! Putting the Swedish government in its place.

  • does burning holy books expose government malfeasance or corruption?

  • etc...

I note that many European countries do have restriction on political expression - such as displaying Nazi symbols.

And also that not all Koran burning is what it seems Burning of Qur’an in Stockholm funded by journalist with Kremlin ties | Sweden | The Guardian.

I also note that, while Bible burnings do not result in lootings and lynchings, there is, within Western countries, a fairly strong self-policing to disapprove of such acts, rather than holding them up as a regular act of political freedom.

Not that Christians never engage in religious terrorism either. When Last Temptation of Christ came out in 1988, a cinema in Paris' Left Bank got firebombed and a man got horribly burned. Asked to condemn it, a senior French bishop said something like "This is horrible and we condemn it. But he shouldn't have been in there watching that movie". Heard on radio as I was living in Paris at the time.

Now the risks to any prohibition of "religious disrespect acts" are also easy to imagine and easy to find examples for:

  • political repression, which for example is a standard BJP tactic re. "insulting Hindus"

  • encouraging lynching mob mentality. Lynchings in Pakistan for "blasphemy" are frequent.

  • too wide, thus catching artistic expression like Last Temptation of Christ or Satanic Verses.

  • suppressing exposure malfeasances like child abuse (ex: Catholic Church)

  • suppression of valid criticism like Hirsi Ali's Nomad.

Do some Western countries with high democracy index scores (i.e. not Poland for example) manage to NARROWLY penalize gratuitous displays of religious disrespect / incitation to hatred?

p.s. Sweden in particular does not have Nazi symbols/Holocaust denial laws and may be more US-like in its free speech approach than most of Europe (not sure).

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8 Answers 8

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Are you aware of the 'no true Scotsman' fallacy? Plenty of countries claim to be democracies and to uphold freedom of speech. But there is no country I'm aware of where one can say anything, anywhere without facing consequences. In a democracy, the restrictions are those which are deemed necessary to protect other important rights (from the reputation of someone accused but not convicted of a crime, to the ability of residents to sleep without noisy music next door). Various democracies feel the need for different trade-offs. Some societies go so far that people claim they're no longer democracies.

§ 166 StGB says in German:

Wer öffentlich oder durch Verbreiten eines Inhalts (§ 11 Absatz 3) den Inhalt des religiösen oder weltanschaulichen Bekenntnisses anderer in einer Weise beschimpft, die geeignet ist, den öffentlichen Frieden zu stören, wird mit Freiheitsstrafe bis zu drei Jahren oder mit Geldstrafe bestraft.

Cutting out some irrelevant bits this translates as:

Whoever publically demeans the content of a religious view in a way that will disturb public peace can be punished.

So this only applies for actions against a religion in general like burning their religous books but not speech against say specific actions of an individual.

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    I just read the interesting reasoning about $166 StGB in the 1960s (dserver.bundestag.de/btd/05/040/0504094.pdf, pp 29 and 30). Originally, of course, similar laws protected specifically the Christian faith and churches. The new law focused instead on sustaining the public peace and was faith agnostic: Atheists would be equally protected, and an individual creed enjoyed the same protection as official denominations. The target of the law are insults and hate speech which violate the commandment of tolerance towards others necessary for living peacefully together. Jul 15, 2023 at 12:21
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    Being German, I may be partial, but I like that law: It's basically a code of conduct against trolls. Of course one can criticize the Quran but there is no reason to urinate on it other than trolling. By the way, I don't like the anti Nazi symbol laws. I understand where they come from (there was a strong underground Nazi network after the war, and obviously the Americans who heavily influenced the legal shape of West Germany were concerned about them and the general population as well), but in the end I'm a big fan of the competition of ideas and hence free speech (sans trolling). Jul 15, 2023 at 12:28
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    Keep in mind that in the German constitution, freedom of speech is a derived right. People have the right to inform themselves, and for that to happen, the dissemination of information must not be hindered -- but not all speech is useful information, and some speech is aimed at disturbing communication. The American style "rhetorics is protected speech" runs counter to the Enlightenment values behind the German constitution. Jul 16, 2023 at 6:32
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica What I don't like about this law is that "in a way that will disturb public peace" heavily depends on how sensitive the religion members are. If they're sensitive enough, anything could be considered an insult towards their scripture or prophets. Jul 17, 2023 at 14:06
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    @ilkkachu I think one basic difference is that insulting people ("white people are stupid" etc.) is already forbidden. Insulting religion is not necessary an insult against groups of people; it is directed against an abstract creed. Urinating on the Bible does not directly insult Christians. But because the creed is something dear and personal and often something people are passionate about it seemed worthy of a protection which other abstract concepts do not need (urinating on your physics book or your Birkin bag is clearly different). Jul 17, 2023 at 15:50
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I'm not sure if you consider Wikipedia a sufficient source, yet one can find there:

In place of blasphemy or in addition to blasphemy in some European countries is the crime of "religious insult", which is a subset of the crime of blasphemy. As of March 2009, it was forbidden in Andorra, Cyprus, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Spain, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, the Russian Federation, Slovakia, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine.

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    this would be a stronger answer if it picked one or two particular country and specified what its law consisted of. Jul 14, 2023 at 20:53
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Inciting religious hatred seems applicable in France. France charges man for burning, urinating on Koran | Reuters (2010):

The man, who was arrested on Monday, faces up to five years in prison after being identified by police using his telephone number which is visible in the images.

“He claims full responsibility. He says he’s not a right-wing extremist but that in France he can burn the Koran, just as he can burn a Winnie the Pooh book, without worrying about the consequences,” Strasbourg deputy prosecutor Gilles Delorme told Reuters.

The Strasbourg blogger gave no explanation for his act, Delorme said, but the incident is the latest in a spate of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts of vandalism in the city since the start of the year.

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    Note that the French law makes a strong distinction between "religious disrespect" and "incitation to hatred". The blogger mentioned in this answer was eventually acquitted because it was not proved that his intentions were to incitate to hatred. Jul 17, 2023 at 8:05
  • @SkippyleGrandGourou: Good to know! Jul 17, 2023 at 14:07
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The last part of your question is important: many European countries have laws against "inciting hatred" - which is AFAIK usually limited to public displays - while AFAIK few (or no) of the same countries have laws against "religious disrespect". Burning a book might be religious discrespect, but it will not automatically mean "inciting hatred" - context will matter and will be judged by a court.

For example, in , article 356 of the criminal code (40/2009 Sb.) says - translation mine, less salient parts omitted:

(1) Whoever publicly incites hatred towards a nation, race, ethnic group, religion, class or other group of people or incites to reduce the rights and freedoms of the group members, will be subject to incarceration for up to two years.

...

(3) The culprit will face incarceration for six months to three years

(3.a) if they commit the act described in (1) in print, film, radio, television, publicly accessible computer netowrk or other similarly effective manner, or

(3.b) if they commit such act in participation in the activity of a group or organization that promotes discrimination, violence or racial, ethnic, class, religious or other hatred

The court would likely try to assess a couple questions about the book burning: Was it public/medialized? How likely would the spectators understand the act as promoting hatred toward a specific group? Did the perpatrator intend to promote hatred? Note also that the penalties are not particularly harsh and for non-medialized acts, the court is free to give as low penalty as they desire, even if the court rules that the act indeed was "inciting hatred".

Quietly burning a holy book in your garden, maybe with some friends is very unlikely get you in trouble. Filming it and posting it on a social media from an account called "White power 4ever" with a title like "(members of a religious group) should all understand what whill happen to them" will very likely pose problems.

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    Libraries burn books all the time, almost certainly including religious books. I suspect that in majority muslim countries, disposing of a worn out copy of the quran is not going to be prospecuted. Clearly it's not about the burning as such, but about the context.
    – gerrit
    Jul 15, 2023 at 21:17
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    @gerrit Turns out, burning is one of the traditional respectful ways of disposing old copies of the Koran: learnreligions.com/disposal-of-quran-2004546 , npr.org/2012/02/24/147321213/… . Jul 16, 2023 at 8:05
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Finland has one...

It's in the criminal code, chapter 17 "Offences against public order", section 10 (Finnish, English translation quoted below).

Section 10 (563/1998).
Violation of the sanctity of religion

A person who

  1. publicly blasphemes against God or, for the purpose of offending, publicly defames or desecrates what is otherwise considered sacred by a church or a religious community referred to in the Act on the Freedom of Religion (267/1922), or

  2. by making noise, acting threateningly or otherwise disturbs a church service, a religious ceremony, another similar form of worship or a funeral shall be sentenced for a violation of the sanctity of religion to a fine or to imprisonment for at most six months.

It somewhat overlaps with the wider "Agitation against a population group" (Chapter 10, section 10), and the fact that targeting religous groups is criminalized separately has been the subject of some controversy (Article in Yle, 2021-07, Seura, 2023-04). Apparently the UN Human rights committee has also disliked the Finnish legislation on this part (points 40-41 in the PDF).

The article from Seura above has an overview of the cases where a courts have handled cases related to above mentioned section within the last 10 years. I'm not going to translate it all, but they mention a total of 14 cases, most having to do with anti-islam writings online, or such. In a few of the cases, the perpetrators were also convicted of agitation against a population group (the difference apparently being that insulting muslims is agitation against a group, while disrespecting the Quran is violating the sanctity of religion).

The article reviewed cases from 2013, so they're not mentioning the case where the current speaker of Parliament was fined for both crimes in 2012 due to his online writings.

Related to the cases in Sweden, the Seura article also mentions that in January, the Helsinki police department were of the opinion that burning the book in Finland would be illegal in Finland and apparently had warned some would-be protesters from doing the same here.

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Arguably by definition no, since having such laws is certainly a restriction on "strong freedom of expression".

But here's what you're looking for in Austrian law:

§ 188 Strafgesetzbuch:

§ 188. Wer öffentlich eine Person oder eine Sache, die den Gegenstand der Verehrung einer im Inland bestehenden Kirche oder Religionsgesellschaft bildet, oder eine Glaubenslehre, einen gesetzlich zulässigen Brauch oder eine gesetzlich zulässige Einrichtung einer solchen Kirche oder Religionsgesellschaft unter Umständen herabwürdigt oder verspottet, unter denen sein Verhalten geeignet ist, berechtigtes Ärgernis zu erregen, ist mit Freiheitsstrafe bis zu sechs Monaten oder mit Geldstrafe bis zu 360 Tagessätzen zu bestrafen.

Translation to English:

Whoever publicly demeans or mocks a person or an object that constitutes the object of worship of a domestically constituted church or religious community, or a teaching of faith, a lawful tradition or a lawful institution of such a church or religious community under circumstances under which their behavior is suitable for causing justified anger shall be punished with imprisonment of up to six months or with a fine of up to 360 daily rates [i.e. 360 times their daily income but defined in § 19 as at least €4 but at most €5000].

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    Upvoted, because this is the kind of info I asked for, but "Whoever publicly demeans or mocks a person or an object" a lot more open-ended than just saying you can't burn a Koran or Bible. For example, if I were to upload a cartoon of the Pope as a snoozing snail wrt child abuse I would be liable under the law. That is not good. (Not that I feel that way about this Pope, who seems to have good intent but gets stymied by his bureaucracy). Jul 16, 2023 at 1:00
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In addition to the other answers, there is even a case law by the European Court of Human Rights about that, Otto-Preminger Institut v. Austria (1994).

From the Columbia Global Database of Freedom of Expression Case Law:

The European Court of Human Rights determined that government seizure and forfeiture of a film did not violate the right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. An Austrian audio-visual media promotion association screened a film that contained trivial imagery of Christianity. The public prosecutor instituted a criminal proceeding against the organization at the request of the Roman Catholic Church for disparaging religious doctrines under Section 188 of the Penal Code. Pursuant to the Austrian Media Act, the prosecutor later seized the film and prevented its public distribution. The Court reasoned that the absence of a uniform position in Europe on the significance of religion in society, meant that national authorities were entitled to a certain margin of appreciation in assessing the necessity of imposing restrictions to avoid offending religious beliefs.

Note that the decision has been criticized.

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  • Upvoted, but again, without knowing more about the case, "trivial imagery", sounds a bit more of a wide net than just desecration: The announcement did not include the contents of the movie itself, but carried a statement that trivial imagery and absurdities of the Christian creed would be caricatured. There are plenty of things the Catholic Church can find objectionable and they should rarely have much say in initiating censorship. A good starting point would be to penalize desecration of holy objects and places, but not interfere with criticism of organizations or doctrine. Jul 17, 2023 at 17:20
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Not sure if you count the United States as having a high democracy index, but the U.S. restrictions on free speech are required by law to be narrowly tailored AND content neutral AND serve a compelling government interest. Thus, burning a Koran is not in and of its self illegal. However, if you burn a Koran that is not yours than you are guilty of a crime (theft and Arson (second degree)) which is content neutral (neither law cares what the thing that was stolen/burned was so much as it was burned without permission of the lawful owner) or if you burn the U.S. flag in a area with restrictions on controlled burning due to a drought (in this case, it is in the government's interest to not have the entire town burn down because... doesn't matter whose flag you are burning.).

The idea behind this is that there might be a form of speech that may use language that is deemed inappropriate but for the purposes of making a powerful message. To whit, the films "Blazing Saddle" and the South Park Episode "With appologies to Jesse Jackson" both make heavy use of offensive racial slurs to promote messages of tolerance and acceptance of people and to show off the pain of intollerance (In the case of Blazing Saddles, the characters who use those terms are consistently depicted as either evil, stupid, or evil and stupid. In the Case of South Park, the use was to create a situation to help White People understand the pain of slurs being used against a person. In addition, both examples are damn hilarious to boot.).

But perhaps my favorite is this act performed by magicians Penn and Teller, in which they proudly and loudly (Well, Teller not so much) declare their love for America... by burning the American flag while wrapped in a copy of the Bill of Rights (they can't afford the real one). To whit "The flag is gone, but the Bill remains."

Edit: In the clip shown, they do show how the trick is done... However, part of their gimmick is that they show how to perform the classic trick and then perform a more complicated version of the classic trick. The second burning of the flag is not done in this clip, likely for time purposes.

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    How does this answer the Q? If I steal your copy of The Anarchist's Cookbook and burn it in a national park during a campfire ban, I would get charged by the same laws, they have nothing to with the religious nature of the book in question. And the Q was specifically about religious desecration and took pains to ask about a narrow interpretation that would not impede worthy subjects such as artistic expression. Burning a Koran is not writing the screenplay to Blazing Saddles, nor are ethnic sensibilities an exact match for religious ones. Burning the flag is also not the same thing. Jul 14, 2023 at 21:04
  • This is not always true. The specific example you cited, of destroying someone else's property, doesn't have to be content-neutral in the eyes of the law. Once the fact of the crime is established, the nature of the crime is open to further interpretation. Which is why there are hate-speech enhancements to crimes, but hate speech itself cannot be a crime (in the US). There is also some back and forth about whether cross burning is universally intimidation.
    – wrod
    Jul 15, 2023 at 4:12
  • I'm also not sure how this is supposed to answer the question. The U.S. is pretty clearly a counter-example to what the question is looking for. Any law specifically against desecrating a religious symbol (or any other sort of symbol, including national symbols such as the flag) would be unconstitutional on its face in the U.S. That it is possible to commit a different crime (which has nothing to do with protecting religious symbols) in the process isn't really relevant to the question and would be true in essentially every country. Arson and theft are illegal regardless of any expression.
    – reirab
    Jul 15, 2023 at 10:00

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