Quran desecration: How Europeans can ease tensions with Muslim-majority nations

Sweden has again become the target of outrage in Muslim-majority countries due to its permissiveness of the desecration of the Quran. An Iraqi national living in the country staged two Quran burnings in recent weeks; another incident followed in its neighbour Denmark on Monday.

In Baghdad, protesters stormed and set fire to the Swedish embassy. Further protests erupted in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. The Iraqi prime minister, Muhammed Al-Sudani, expelled the Swedish ambassador; Iran has said it will not accept the appointment of a new Swedish ambassador. The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation suspended the status of the Swedish special envoy.  

Muslim-majority countries including Saudi Arabia denounced a ruling from Sweden’s high court that permitted the continued desecration of the Quran. The Swedish and Danish governments have condemned the incidents. But domestic politics and different interpretations of free expression now risk an escalation of tensions between European and Muslim-majority countries.

Speed is of the essence

Swedish and Danish diplomats and governments should quickly look to prevent further diplomatic and security escalation through direct channels, public communication, and – in the case of Iraq – cooperation with the United Nations Assistance Mission.

  • They should remind all relevant countries of their duty to protect embassy staff and property under the Vienna Conventions. Sweden and Denmark should seek support from other European governments, the European Union, and the UN in this effort. They should quietly warn countries of mutually negative repercussions if they fail to provide such protections: Iraq risks undermining efforts to attract much needed foreign investment; attacks on European embassies in Iran may trigger the EU to designate the country’s Revolutionary Guard Corp as a terrorist organisation.
  • The Swedish government needs to depoliticise the court ruling, advertising the independence of the country’s judiciary and the clear, broadly applicable laws on which it rendered the desecration of the Quran permissible. They need to demonstrate that the ruling neither targeted Islam nor Muslims.
  • European governments should continue to communicate that just because an act is legally permissible that does not mean they condone it. Sweden in particular should emphasise that its longstanding openness has led it to becoming a safe haven for many refugees from across the world.

Domestic binds

The Swedish legislative framework and courts have come out strongly in support of an expansive interpretation of freedom of expression. Denmark revoked blasphemy laws in 2017. This leaves their governments with little manoeuvring space to restrict future incidents of Quran desecration. The focus should be how to respond if and when they happen.

Similarly, domestic matters rest at the heart of the strong reaction from authorities in Muslim majority countries. In Iraq’s case, the protests were orchestrated by the Sadrist Movement. This camp has been unable to take on its rivals directly either through political or military means. Sadrists have used events in Sweden to display strength, challenging the credibility of the Sudani government. If Sudani had attempted to stop the Sadrists storming the Swedish embassy, it would have appeared as though he was condoning the desecration of the Quran. But, as a result, Sudani’s relationship with the West may be at risk, as exemplified by Germany’s defence minister cancelling a trip to Iraq, citing security concerns about the protests.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran compete to present themselves as leaders of the Muslim world. Following the strong response to Sweden from the Iraqi government, religious constituents in Riyadh and Tehran expect an equally forceful reaction from their own governments.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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