Supporters of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) group take part in a protest denouncing the burning in Sweden of the Quran, near Baghdad’s Green Zone. Image Courtesy:
Supporters of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) group take part in a protest denouncing the burning in Sweden of the Quran, near Baghdad’s Green Zone. (Image Courtesy:

Since June 2023, multiple acts of desecration of the Quran in Sweden and Denmark have ignited a global furor and raised profound questions about the limits of freedom of expression. This provocative act, marked by Quran burning and demonstrations, has unleashed a wave of condemnations from Muslim-majority nations and triggered a cascade of events with far-reaching consequences

Quran Burning in Stockholm Ignites Furor on Eid ul Adha

On June 28th, 2023, Salwan Momika, an Iraqi refugee residing in Sweden, tore up and burned pages of the Quran in front of the Central mosque of Stockholm on the occasion of Eid ul Adha. The incident coincided with the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and marked the culmination of religious observance. Momika not only tore the Quran but also put a strip of bacon on it and stomped it. Representatives of the mosque were disappointed by the police decision to grant permission for the protest during the Muslim holiday.[1] The incident sent shock waves throughout  Muslim countries from Iran to  Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and the UAE that issued strong condemnations.

Global Condemnation and Diplomatic Fallout

 In Turkey: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed Sweden over the incident stating that  Ankara will never bow to a policy of provocation or threat. “We will teach the arrogant Western people that it is not freedom of expression to insult the sacred values of Muslims,” he said in a statement released on 28th June 2023.[2]

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry summoned the Swedish ambassador on 29th June 2023, to protest the burning of the Holy Quran and notified her of Iraq’s strong  condemnation of the permission of her government  to burn a copy of the Quran. The ministry also demanded that the Swedish government take the necessary legal steps to stop such practices while stressing that freedom of expression does not justify the insulting of religious sanctities[3]

The Office of Iraq’s supreme religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, sent a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres  to denounce the incident. Ayatollah al-Sistani called upon the United Nations to take adequate measures to prevent the recurrence of similar acts. He also urged countries to reconsider their legislation that allows such incidents to occur. [4]

The leader of  Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah also called on Arab and Islamic nations to follow Iraq in expelling Sweden’s ambassadors and withdrawing their envoys from Sweden.[5]

Similarly, Iran’s foreign ministry summoned Sweden’s charge d’affaires on 29th Jun 2023 to condemn what it said was an insult to the most sacred Islamic sanctities.[6]

The Saudi foreign ministry also condemned the burning in these terms : “These hateful and repeated acts cannot be accepted with any justification, as they clearly incite hatred, exclusion, and racism, and directly contradict international efforts seeking to spread the values of tolerance, moderation, and rejection of extremism, and undermine the necessary mutual respect for relations between peoples and states”. [7]

Morocco’s foreign ministry summoned Sweden’s chargé d’affaires in Rabat on 28th June 2023 and expressed the kingdom’s “strong condemnation of this attack and its rejection of this unacceptable act”.[8]

The Jordanian Foreign Ministry on 29th June 2023 summoned Sweden’s Ambassador to Amman Alexandra Rydmark to protest the burning of the Islamic holy book, the Quran, in Stockholm under the protection of local police.  The ministry, “condemned the burning of a copy of the Holy Quran as a racist act of serious hate, and a manifestation of Islamophobia that incites violence and insult to religions.”


The Syrian Foreign Ministry likewise condemned the action, calling it a “crime,” the official news outlet SANA reported.[10]

As an act of retaliation,  the Taliban suspended all the activities of Swedish organizations in the country .[11]

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry also  strongly condemned the burning of a copy of the Holy Quran in Sweden on the first day of Eid al-Adha. The Ministry said the act was “odious” and “contradicts the values of respect for others and their sanctities.” It expressed deep concern about the repeated incidents of burning the Quran and the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia and religious desecration in some European countries. Al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in Sunni Islam called for a boycott of Swedish products and urged Islamic governments to take serious and unified positions against violations of the Quran. Al-Azhar also called  religious authorities worldwide to issue a fatwa on the obligation to boycott Swedish products. [12]

 Reactions from the Swedish Government:

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson initially did not comment on whether the latest incident of Quran burning would further damage relations with Turkey and threaten NATO membership.   On June 28 2023, he described the Quran burning as “ legal but not appropriate,”  adding it was up to the police to make decisions on Quran burning. Sweden’s police had rejected several recent applications for anti-Quran demonstrations, but its courts overruled the decisions, saying they infringed on the right to freedom of speech.[13]

Magnus Ranstorp [14] Ranstorp is Strategic Adviser at the Centre for Societal Security at the Swedish Defense University & Special Adviser of the EU Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN), said the timing of the latest Quran-burning, just as Swedish and Turkish officials were getting ready to hold talks about Sweden’s NATO bid this week, was suspicious.“We have foreign powers, like Russia for example, which spread information in Arabic about this. We have Turkey, which is using it for leverage in the NATO debate,” Ranstorp said. [15]

 Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) Resolution:

The OIC convened a special meeting on 2nd July 2023  in Jeddah. It urged its member states to take unified and collective measures to prevent the recurrence of incidents of desecration of copies of the Qur’an”.[16],2%20July%202023%2C%20at%20the Following the meeting, the foreign ministry of Sweden released a statement,  strongly condemning the Quran desecration. The ministry said it understands that Islamophobic acts in Sweden can be offensive to Muslims.[17]

Legal Battle Over Freedom of Expression: Police Action, Court Ruling and Constitutional Protections.

On 21st January 2023 a similar similar protest by a far-right activist Rasmus Paludan was held outside Turkey’s Embassy, hence complicating Sweden’s efforts to convince Turkey to let it join NATO. After the condemnation by the Muslim world and other countries, Swedish police denied permission for two similar demonstrations on 1st February 2023. One would have been outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm to protest against Turkey’s refusal to permit Sweden’s entrance to NATO, the other was about burning the Quran outside the Iraqi embassy. The Police had cited the Public Order law, or Ordningslag, as justification for the ban. [18]

However, on April 2, 2023,  the Stockholm Administrative Court overruled the police, arguing that the security risks did not have a sufficiently clear connection to the planned gatherings or their immediate surroundings to refuse permission. Under Swedish law, gatherings can only be banned if they are a threat to public safety. In Sweden it is up to the police, not the government, to decide whether to authorize demonstrations or public gatherings.[19]

At the same time,  freedom of speech is protected under the Swedish constitution. Police need to cite specific grounds to deny a permit for a demonstration or public gathering, such as risks to public safety. [20]

Momika was granted a permit for the demonstration by the police in line with the country’s free speech protections. [21]Swedish constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression on any subject, including “expressions of opinion that question religious messages, or that can be perceived as hurtful to the … Continue reading [22] After the condemnations authorities said they had opened an investigation over “agitation against an ethnic group”, noting that Momika had burned pages from the Islamic holy book very close to the mosque. The Swedish migration agency announced on 28th July  that it was  re-examining the residency permit of the Iraqi refugee who is behind several Koran desecrations in Stockholm . In an email to Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, the agency says information received from Swedish authorities had given reason to examine whether the man’s status in Sweden should be revoked :” Salwan Momika arrived in Sweden in April 2018. Three years later, in April 2021, he received refugee status, according to information sent to our team by the Swedish Migration Agency, the government body in charge of immigration. Momika has a three-year residency permit (set to expire in April 2024). He lives in the small community of Järna, south of the capital. [23]

The possible revocation of his residency permit could be troubling news to many Iraqis as the incident was widely reported to be carried out by an Iraqi refugee. [24] [25]

There are more than 140,000 Iraqi-born immigrants in Sweden, the second largest immigrant group in the country after Swedish Finns.[26] [27]

On July 5, 2023, the Swedish police authorities received two new demands for book-burning: one from an individual who wanted to burn the Quran outside a mosque and another to burn the Torah and the Bible outside Israel’s Embassy.[28] The request to burn  the Torah and the Bible w came from Swedish national Ahmad Alloush. Though Israeli government officials and Jewish groups condemned the act and called on Swedish authorities to stop it, police approved the man’s request. However, once at the scene the man backed away  and held a demonstration against desecrating holy books. He could never burn a holy book, he repeatedly said in both Arabic and Swedish; he just wanted to demonstrate against the burning of the Quran.[29]

UNHRC Resolution on Quran Burning

On July 11, 2023, on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Pakistan filed a motion at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), calling on countries to review their legislation that at the moment  “impede the prevention and prosecution of acts and advocacy of religious hatred”.[30] The Human Rights Council, on July 12,issued  a call to all countries to  do more to prevent religious hatred [31]In the resolution (A/HRC/53/L.23) entitled as “Countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”, the Council calls upon states to adopt national laws, … Continue reading. The resolution was backed by many developing countries in Africa and the Middle East, as well as China and India. [32] … Continue reading

Twenty-eight countries voted in favour, 12 voted against, and seven countries abstained.  Among the countries that voted against the resolution were the US, UK, France, Finland, Belgium, Germany, and others. The vote’s outcome marked a major defeat for Western countries at a time when the OIC has unprecedented clout in the UNHRC. The Western countries opposed the resolution because it conflicts with their view on human rights and freedom of expression. While condemning the burning of the Koran, they argued the OIC initiative was designed to safeguard religious symbols rather than human rights.

Marc Limon, director of the Geneva-based Universal Rights Group, said the outcome showed “the West is in full retreat at the Human Rights Council. Michele Taylor, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council, complained that the United States’ concerns about the initiative “were not taken seriously.”  She said: “I believe with a little more time and more open discussion, we could have also found a way forward together on this resolution”.

After the vote, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. in Geneva, Khalil Hashmi, accused the West of “lip service” to their commitment to preventing religious hatred [33]

Attack on the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad

On 20th July 2023, the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad was briefly stormed by angry supporters of the influential Shia authority, Muqada al-Sadr who has opposed Iranian influence in Iraq, setting him apart from other Shi’ite leaders who have close ties to Tehran. He has also called for the departure of the last remaining U.S. troops in Iraq. His movement is a major force in Iraqi politics, winning the most seats in the 2018 legislative election and again in 2021. He has a track record of mobilising supporters in the streets, i like in 2019, when they joined anti-corruption protests that toppled the government led by pro-Iranian parties.

Protesters occupied the  Swedish diplomatic post for several hours, waving flags and setting a small fire. [34] The embassy staff was evacuated a day earlier. This demonstration was a response to  the second rally organised by Momika in Stockholm when he stomped and kicked the Koran outside Iraq’s embassy. He also stepped on and kicked an Iraqi flag, as well as photographs of al-Sadr and Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. [35]

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry condemned “in the harshest terms” the fire at the Swedish embassy in Baghdad, calling on the security forces to open an “urgent investigation”. Following a meeting with security officials, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani stated that Iraqi authorities would prosecute those responsible for starting the fire and open an investigation on “negligent security officials.”[36]

However, the statement also said that the Iraqi government had informed Sweden on July 19th, a day before the protest,  that Iraq would cut off diplomatic relations should the Quran burning go forward. It said the decision was “prompted by the Swedish government’s repeated permission for the burning of the holy Quran, insulting Islamic sacred book and the burning of the Iraqi flag”. The Iraqi foreign minister recalled   his country charge d’affaires in Sweden  and suspended the working permit of Swedish telecom company Ericsson on Iraqi soil.[37]

Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Tobias Billstrom,  described the protests in Bagdad as “completely unacceptable” and condemned the attack on the embassy “in the strongest terms”: “Iraqi authorities have an unequivocal obligation to protect diplomatic missions and personnel under the Vienna Convention,” he said in a statement [38] [39]

In Washington, the Department of State also condemned the attack on the embassy and criticised Iraq’s security forces for not preventing protesters from breaching the diplomatic post. They called on the Iraqi government to honour its international obligations to protect all diplomatic missions in Iraq.[40]

The European Union released the following statement on their website.[41]

“The EU joins the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its strong rejection of the burning of a Quran by an individual in Sweden. This act in no way reflects the opinions of the European Union. Burning the Quran or any other Holy Book is offensive, disrespectful and a clear act of provocation. Manifestations of racism, xenophobia and related intolerance have no place in Europe”, said the statement

Miguel Moratinos, the high representative of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), said “the desecration of sacred religious books is not freedom of expression but rather an expression of contempt and religious hatred”. He also condemned the acts of violence and the storming of the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad, stressing that violence is never an appropriate response to provocation”.[42]

Denmark’s Reaction and Ripple Effect

On 20th July 2023, Denmark’s foreign minister, Løkke Rasmussen, said that his government will seek to make it illegal to desecrate the Quran or other religious holy books. [43]

In an interview with Danish public broadcaster, he said  that the burning of holy scriptures “only serves the purpose of creating division in a world that needs unity. That is why we have decided in the government that we will look at how, in very special situations, we can put an end to the mockery of other countries, which is in direct conflict with Danish interests and the safety of the Danes.”[44]

On July 24th 2023, another incident of Quran burning took place in front of the Iraqi embassy in Copenhagen by a group called “Danish Patriots”.[45]Danske Patriote (Danish patriots) is an anti-islam and ultranationalist group based in Denmark.Its members are involved in provocative actions against Islam and Muslims like burning copies of the … Continue reading[46]

On July 22, The Danish Refugee Council said its office in the southern Iraqi city of Basra had come under “armed attack” after a Copenhagen protest in which the Quran was believed to have been desecrated. “Our staff on the premises at the time were physically unharmed, but there has been damage to the property with structures set on fire,” the organization’s executive director for the Middle East, Lilu Thapa, said. [47]

On 25th July, Turkey foreign minister strongly condemned the “continuing attacks” on the Quran, adding that Danish authorities allowing these actions, do not see the “severity” of their consequences and calling on Denmark to take necessary measures to prevent this “hate crime” against Islam. [48]

On 30th July 2023 Sweden’s Prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, stated that his country and Denmark were “in the most serious security situation since the Second World War, and as for Sweden, we are aware that states and state-like actors are actively exploiting the situation.” He added that he was in close contact with his Danish counterpart, Mette Frederiksen, to monitor the situation. He announced that  the Public Order Act will be revisited –to explore  ways of  strengthening national security and the security of Swedes in Sweden and abroad. [49]

On 31 July 2023,  the OIC presented a 35-pointed action plan on the repeated Crimes of desecration and burning of copies of the Quran in Sweden and Denmark to the UN Secretary-General during the 18th extraordinary session of the Council of Foreign Ministers. It asked for the adherence to UN Security Council Resolution No.2686 (2023) adopted on 14th June 2023  and condemned Swedish and Danish authorities for not taking any measure to prevent the recurrence of such acts which are contrary to the resolution. [50]

On August 2, 2023, Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, spoke out for the first time on the burning of the Quran in her country, saying: “I don’t consider it a restriction on freedom of expression that you can’t burn other people’s books”. This declaration came after the Danish government decided to explore legal means of stopping the protests involving burning holy texts in certain circumstances. [51]

The Quran burning has ignited widespread debates on the limits of freedom of expression, Islamophobia and the protection of religious sensitivities. As nations grapple with these complex challenges, the incidents serve as a reminder of the ongoing efforts to navigate the evolving landscape of global interfaith relations and the rights of individuals with respect to the collective.


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1, 13
14 Ranstorp is Strategic Adviser at the Centre for Societal Security at the Swedish Defense University & Special Adviser of the EU Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN)
15, 28
21 Swedish constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression on any subject, including “expressions of opinion that question religious messages, or that can be perceived as hurtful to the believer.
24, 34, 37
31 In the resolution (A/HRC/53/L.23) entitled as “Countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”, the Council calls upon states to adopt national laws, policies and law enforcement frameworks that address, prevent and prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred that incite to discrimination, hostility or violence, and to take immediate steps to ensure accountability of the perpetrators. The resolution also requests the High Commissioner to present at its fifty-fourth session an oral update on the various drivers, root causes and human rights impacts of religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence
45 Danske Patriote (Danish patriots) is an anti-islam and ultranationalist group based in Denmark.Its members are involved in provocative actions against Islam and Muslims like burning copies of the holy book in front of the embassies of Turkey, Algeria, Pakistan, Iran and Indonesia in the Danish capital. The group also carried out a similar attack in the northern city of Aalborg and chanted Islamophobic slogans. It usually operates on social media where they stream the burning of the Quran.