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EXPLAINER: Can Denmark make it illegal to burn holy texts?

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EXPLAINER: Can Denmark make it illegal to burn holy texts?
Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen (centre) is questioned by media, as the Danish government briefs on plans that could restrict demonstrations that involve burning religious texts like the Quran. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Denmark scrapped its anti-blasphemy law in 2017 and has traditionally held that insulting religions is permissible because the constitution guarantees freedom of speech. How can the government make it illegal to burn the Quran, and what considerations are there for politicians?


The Danish government said on Sunday evening it would explore legal means of stopping protests involving the burning of holy texts in certain circumstances.

In a statement, the government cited security concerns following backlash over recent incidents that saw the Quran desecrated in Denmark and Sweden.

Noting that such protests played into the hands of extremists, the government wants to "explore" intervening in situations where "other countries, cultures, and religions are being insulted, and where this could have significant negative consequences for Denmark, not least with regard to security," it said in a statement from the foreign ministry.

Conservative parties already raised concern about the potential move. Conservative Party leader Søren Pape Poulsen told broadcaster DR “we are compromising on things that I’m concerned about where they’ll end”.

Quran-burning demonstrations in Denmark have taken place since 2019, initiated by right-wing extremist Rasmus Paludan and his political party Stram Kurs.


Burning the Quran, and insulting religion in general, is permitted in Denmark under the country’s constitutional free speech rights.

“Since Denmark does not have a blasphemy law it gives the possibility for people to come up with radical points of views," Helle Lykke Nielsen, Associate Professor of Contemporary Middle East Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, previously told The Local. 


According to legal experts commenting on Monday, it would be relatively simple for parliament to introduce laws that criminalise burning the Quran and other holy texts.

But opinion is divided on whether this could be a first step towards seeing the country’s free speech traditions begin to backslide.

“This would in my view be a limited and therefore a legal intervention,” Sten Schaumburg-Müller, a law professor at the University of Southern Denmark, told news wire Ritzau.

In other words, such an intervention would impinge on free speech rights as they stand but would be legal, according to the professor.

New legislation as suggested by the government would apply to all religious texts and not just the Quram, Schaumburg-Müller noted. It would have a narrow definition and state practical purposes such as preventing safety risks and disturbances, he said.

Another law expert however said that a legal mechanism aimed at stopping Quran burnings is not a straightforward step.

“Criticising a religion is completely legal. We scrapped the blasphemy paragraph in Denmark in 2017,” Jens Elo Rytter, professor of administrative law at the University of Copenhagen, told Ritzau.


“The blasphemy paragraph was controversial for a long time and that was what led to it being repealed,” he said.

Conservative politicians including the leader of the Liberal Alliance party, Alex Vanopslagh, have expressed concern about a “slippery slope” in which a precedent is set for interventions in free speech.

Rytter said he understood that argument.

“If we begin – as is the case here – to say that free speech can be limited as a consideration to broader Danish diplomatic, trade and security interests abroad, I can envisage other problematic interventions will come,” he said.

“For example if you suddenly aren’t allowed to burn pictures of foreign leaders or have demonstrations where you criticise others,” he said.

But that view was not shared entirely by Schaumburg-Müller, who noted that he supported the repeal of the blasphemy law at the time because of its broad protection of religious sensitivities.

“It was because it had this broad formulation. But introducing a very limited thing here, which says you can’t burn Qurans – I don’t see that necessarily leading anywhere,” he said.

Professor emeritus in criminal law Jørn Vestergaard, also of the University of Copenhagen, noted that free speech does not cover every kind of statement or expression.

"This is precisely why the criminal code contains rules on defamation, racist statements, breach of confidentiality, lèse-majesté, support for terrorism, preaching by imams, a ban on masks, child pornography, desecration of graves and much more," Vestergaard told Ritzau in a written comment.

As such, Vestergaard said he found it hard to argue that burning holy scriptures is a higher priority for protection than public order, security and protecting religious minorities.

"The criminal code contains a provision on publicly insulting a foreign state's flag or other national emblem," he said.

"You could choose to introduce a similar ban against insulting a recognised religious community by publicly degrading specially significant religious objects," he said.


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