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EXPLAINED: Why are demonstrators in Denmark burning the Quran again?

Emma Firth
Emma Firth - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: Why are demonstrators in Denmark burning the Quran again?
Martin Sylvest/Ritzau Scanpix

Quran burnings in both Sweden and Denmark have caused a diplomatic crisis between the two Scandinavian countries and the Middle East. Why have the demonstrations occurred and what will happen next?

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What's happened?

Recent weeks have seen repeated burnings of the Quran in front of embassies in Stockholm and Copenhagen, provoking anger in Muslim majority countries.

The anger culminated in the Swedish embassy in Baghdad being torched by protesters last week, with embassy staff evacuated and attempts made to enter the Iraqi capital’s Green Zone, where Denmark’s embassy is located.

Iran and Iraq have now set up a meeting involving all 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). 

Have burnings of the Quran happened before in Denmark?

In 2019, the right-wing extremist Rasmus Paludan, who has a criminal conviction in Denmark for inciting racial hatred, led demonstrations which featured the burning of the Quran. These were held in areas of Copenhagen with sizeable minority ethnic communities and the demonstrations led to days of social unrest in Copenhagen.

Paludan, who is the leader of the Stram Kurs (Hard Line) party, stood in the 2019 Danish Parliamentary elections but only got 1.8 percent of the vote.

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Paludan then moved to Sweden where he went on a tour of the country carrying out demonstrations. In 2022 he stood in the Swedish election. He got 156 votes which was nowhere near the four percent required to get a seat in the Swedish parliament. 

Paludan was previously banned from entering Sweden for two years. But the ban was rendered invalid after it was confirmed Paludan had Swedish citizenship due to the nationality of one of his parents.

In January 2023, Paludan burned a copy of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, which escalated into a diplomatic row between Turkey and Sweden, holding up the Scandinavian country's application to join Nato.

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Why have the demonstrations started again?

The recent Quran burnings in Denmark have been carried out by small number of people.

One of them is Toke Lorenzen, the leader of Danske Patrioter, a right-wing nationalist breakaway group from Rasmus Paludan's party Stram Kurs.

The burnings have been posted on social media, mentioned in news media worldwide and triggered large and violent protests in several Muslim countries.

The Swedish embassy in Iraq was set alight last Thursday and two days later around 1,000 protestors marched towards the Danish embassy in Baghdad. Iraqi security forces dispersed the protestors before they reached the embassy.

The protestors are supporters of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr, who has a following of millions in Iraq and wields great influence over national politics. 

It is this reaction by Sadr, on top of social media spreading news of the Quran burnings, which has caused the current political storm, according to Helle Lykke Nielsen, Associate Professor of Contemporary Middle East Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.

"It's not enough that media travels, you need somebody who organises the reactions and Moqtada Sadr has done that in this case. He can use this to put pressure on the Iraq government with whom he has power struggles, so he has grabbed the opportunity and it's grown," Nielsen told The Local.

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Why have these demonstrations happened in Denmark and Sweden in particular?

"This is difficult to say. Since Denmark does not have a blasphemy law, (it was revoked in 2017) it gives the possibility for people to come up with radical points of views," Nielsen explained.

Denmark’s constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights both provide for freedom of speech and freedom to gather in a public place.

"Maybe one of the reasons this happened in Denmark is that the right wing Danish People's Party was one of first right parties in Europe to establish itself into the political landscape. 20 years ago people thought the party would never become a member of the parliamentary landscape but it did, due to freedom of speech.

"I think the fact there's an openness to all political views in Denmark, not because people like them, but because by letting them speak, you get it out in the open, means we see more of this," Nielsen said.

"But Rasmus Paludan has pushed the borders of freedom of speech. He is very radical and the message spreads very quickly. Now Paludan is living in Sweden and at the same time the right-wing Swedish Democrats have skyrocketed though the political landscape, people are getting inspired.

"They are an example of a party whose extremist views were kept quiet but are now dominant in the political landscape. The Danish People's Party power however has decreased immensely and although there are two more right wing parties, from a parliamentary point of view, they haven't grown in Denmark, it's stable," Nielsen said.

What will happen next?

Iran and Iraq have set up an emergency meeting with all 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) over the Quran burnings in Denmark and Sweden. A spokesperson from the Iranian foreign ministry said the meeting will take place virtually on July 31st.

Meanwhile, Denmark’s ambassador to Iran has been summoned by Tehran and Saudi Arabia has summoned a Danish diplomat to protest the desecration of the Quran in Copenhagen.

"A critical statement will come from this meeting but whatever they come up with, no Danish politician would dare to change the law at this moment," Nielsen told The Local.

"Perhaps it could come later when everything has settled but I don't think many politicians would agree to change the law because the freedom of speech law is crucial to the way we understand our society, especially now. It would be a sign of giving in to Islamic countries and that would cause a revolution in Danish politics," Nielsen said.

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