At least two public desecrations of the Quran in Sweden in recent weeks have provoked riots, caused a diplomatic crisis and placed the country, long regarded as peaceful and tolerant, under an awkward international spotlight.
Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden has said the security situation in the country was at its most serious level since World War II. On Thursday, in the wake of the widespread furor, Sweden’s domestic security agency raised its terrorism threat level from “increased” to “high,” the second most severe designation in a five-point scale.
“Sweden has gone from being regarded as a legitimate target for terrorist attacks to being regarded as a priority target,” the country’s security service said in a statement.
The governments of many predominantly Islamic countries have issued withering denunciations of the Swedish authorities for allowing such desecrations of the Muslim holy book. The Swedish government has condemned the recent anti-Muslim acts, but the authorities say that the country’s laws on freedom of speech mean there is little they can do to prevent them.
In mid-July, hundreds of people stormed the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad and set parts of it ablaze after a protester in Stockholm burned a Quran the previous month. Iraq also expelled the Swedish ambassador and directed his Iraqi counterpart to withdraw from the country’s embassy in Stockholm.
In late July, two men in Stockholm appeared to kick, stomp on and set fire to a copy of the Quran at a protest that attracted a small crowd near the Swedish Parliament.
The police declined to confirm whether the Quran was destroyed, saying only in a statement that two men carried out a public meeting without “serious disturbances,” but online footage appeared to show the two protesters desecrating a copy of the holy book.
Similar protests, including recent anti-Islam demonstrations in front of embassies of Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq’s, have also taken place in Denmark, where the government has called them “deeply offensive and reckless acts committed by few individuals.” Both countries are now looking at ways to prohibit, or at least restrict, the destruction of the Quran and other holy texts in public settings.
Here’s what to know about the Quran burnings and the larger issues they have raised.
Who’s been doing the burnings?
Right-wing nationalists have engaged in burning copies of the Quran in Sweden for years. One of them, Rasmus Paludan, a conservative Danish Swedish politician, has become notorious for setting fire to the Muslim scriptures several times, including this past January.
The most recent to carry out such an act in the country, Salwan Momika, is an Iraqi immigrant to Sweden who describes himself on Facebook as a liberal atheist. But he has also expressed hard-line anti-Muslim views and said that he was seeking to draw attention to the mistreatment of Christian minorities by Islamist extremists in some Arab countries.
“I am warning the Swedish people about the dangers of this book,” Mr. Momika said through a megaphone outside a mosque in Stockholm in late June — on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha — before setting a Quran ablaze. “They killed Christians and took their possessions; they killed atheists” because of the Quran’s teachings, Mr. Momika said.
The burning in late July in Stockholm was carried out by Mr. Momika and Salwan Najem, who has joined Mr. Momika at previous protests and who has also called for the Quran to be banned.
At an earlier protest, the two tore up a copy of the Quran in Stockholm before kicking it, though they did not burn the book on that occasion.
Mr. Momika has been charged with agitation against an ethnic or national group, according to the police.
A Muslim man was later granted a permit to burn a Torah and a Bible outside the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm. After an international outcry, the man, Ahmad Alush, told reporters that his intention had not been to burn the scriptures but to underscore the abhorrent nature of such acts.
In Denmark, a small group of far-right nationalists filmed themselves burning what they said was a Quran in front of the Iraqi Embassy. In response, hundreds of protesters in Baghdad tried to storm the Danish Embassy there before security forces dispersed them.
What is the response in Sweden?
The actions have provoked debate over Sweden’s freedom-of-speech protections, which have compelled the government to issue permits for Quran-burning rallies.
“When you see our embassy burning in Baghdad, you see the damage this causes to our country and reputation,” Jan Eliasson, a former Swedish foreign minister and senior United Nations diplomat, said. “On the other hand, the legislation is what it is — this is not illegal.”
Sweden has long enforced tough, constitutionally enshrined protections for freedom of speech and expression. It was also one of the first countries in Europe to have a constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of the press. Although its anti-blasphemy laws were repealed in the 1970s, hate speech against ethnic, national, religious and gender minorities remains a crime.
The Swedish authorities have sought to deny several permits for anti-Quran protests, citing a fear of increased terrorist attacks, but the courts have overruled those denials, saying that they lacked sufficient grounds. Sweden’s intelligence service has previously warned that the country’s reputation had shifted from tolerant to hostile toward Muslims, contributing to a “security situation that has deteriorated.”
Mr. Kristersson, the prime minister, has said that the country is analyzing the legality of the situation to explore measures that would “strengthen our national security and the security of Swedes in Sweden and in the world.”
Members of the Swedish Democrats, an outspokenly anti-immigrant party with neo-Nazi roots that is now the second-largest party in Parliament, have taken a more hard-line view. “We have nothing to learn from the Muslim countries,” Richard Jomshof, a lawmaker from the party, wrote on Twitter. “That they should be allowed to lecture us about democracy and freedom of expression is, to say the least, strange and downright laughable.”
There appears to be some support in Sweden for adjusting the country’s laws. In a poll of 2,000 people conducted in July by Kantar Public, an international policy research group, about half of those who responded said they favored a prohibition on burning holy texts, according to Toivo Sjoren, who leads Kantar Public’s opinion research division.
Others say that the country’s laws on incitement and hate speech should be better enforced, but that an outright ban could put civil liberties at risk.
“We should not go back in time and rewrite laws about blasphemy,” Ola Larsmo, an author and a board member of PEN International, a free-speech group, said in an interview. “If you open that door, there’s a labyrinth behind it.”
What about internationally?
Sweden and Denmark have faced condemnation in the Muslim world.
After a Quran burning in Sweden in January, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said that his country would not back Sweden’s accession to NATO as long as the Swedish authorities were issuing permits for such acts. And Turkey’s foreign minister said in July that Stockholm’s inability to “prevent provocations” had raised questions over Sweden’s credentials for membership.
Turkey has since cleared the way for Sweden to join NATO, though Mr. Erdogan said that Stockholm needed to take more steps to win the support of the Turkish Parliament.
On July 20, after Mr. Momika desecrated a Quran for a second time, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said it expected Sweden to “take deterrent measures to prevent this hate crime.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has called on Sweden to hand Mr. Momika and other Quran burners over to “the judicial systems of Islamic countries.”
Regarding the Quran burning in Denmark, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry denounced the action but did not immediately threaten to cut ties with Copenhagen. “Such horrific incidents do not fall under the umbrella of freedom of speech,” the ministry said. “These actions spark reactions and place us all in a critical situation.”
In response, Denmark’s government has said that it will explore the possibility of intervening in protests where “other countries, cultures and religions are being insulted, and where this could have significant negative consequences for Denmark,” but it cautioned that any changes could not be at odds with freedom-of-expression protections.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 57 states, convened a meeting at the end of July to address the burnings in Sweden and Denmark.
Christina Anderson contributed reporting.