09 February 2024

Exercising Power from the Outside

The Effects of Rasmus Paludan’s Quran Burnings in Denmark and Beyond 

Since 2019, anti-Islam non-parliamentary activists have explored the limits to freedom of speech in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands through their provocative Quran desecration acts. This has most recently led to a (re)introduction of blasphemy legislation in Denmark, partly due to external pressure from Muslim-majority countries and Islamist terrorists. Using the non-parliamentarian arena to exercise power from a position of minority, the far-right activist Rasmus Paludan and his party were able to effectively push the Danish constitutional boundaries, while at the same time affecting the geopolitical situation. While the protests so far only have had legal repercussions regarding blasphemy and freedom of speech in Denmark, it clearly demonstrates that non-parliamentary far-right activists also hold certain legislative powers.

Paludan and Hard Line’s Anti-Islam Protests and Quran Desecration Acts

The Danish activist, politician, and lawyer Rasmus Paludan entered the Danish protest scene in 2016, joining anti-Islam groups such as For Freedom (previously PEGIDA-DK) and Stop Islamisation of Denmark (SIAD), before initiating protests in his own name and setting up his own anti-immigration party, Hard Line (Stram Kurs) in 2017. He had previously been a member of the radical right party New Right (Nye Borgerlige), but he was expulsed for having cited Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech at a For Freedom demonstration in 2016. Hard Line refers to its ideology as ‘ethnonationalist utilitarianism’, and its predominant tenant is the objection to Muslim immigrants. Certain politicians and political commentators have classified Paludan as a Nazi, but while Danish historians and far-right experts have refuted this claim, they also struggle to classify Paludan’s ideological position on the far-right scale. Yet, it is considerably more extreme than both Danish People’s Party and New Right.

Since 2018, Rasmus Paludan and his fellow Hard Line party members have organized protests in local areas with sizeable Muslim populations, trying to cause anger and violence amongst onlookers, to ‘prove’ the violence-preparedness of Muslim migrants. Initially desecrating the book by tearing out pages, throwing or kicking it, etcetera, from 2019 onwards, the activists also started burning the Quran. In Spring 2019, Hard Line began collecting voter declarations for the June elections, and after the violent counterdemonstrations during a protest in the Copenhagen neighborhood Nørrebro in April, the party obtained sufficient signatures. While the party received less than the 2% required to join parliament, Paludan took part in televised party debates, further spreading his message.

The acts not only obtained much mainstream media attention, but as the activists live-streamed protests to YouTube, they also had a sizeable online following, particularly amongst Danish youth. Even though most young people watched the videos for their entertainment value, it did lead to worries about the normalization of hate speech online, and he has been temporarily banned from both YouTube (in February 2020) and Facebook (in May 2019).

The protests and the, at times, disruptive and/or violent counter-responses by local residents, plus Hard Line’selectoral participation, led to strong domestic debates about the (potential) limits to freedom of speech. This was due to the inherent discrimination of not only the act itself, but also the derogatory protest speeches, the public funding of police protection, and the potential security threats from Islamist terrorists. Most onlookers and commentators found the actions objectionable. In a survey conducted in May 2019, more than half of the respondents indicated that they did not want police resources to go to the protection of Paludan (53%), and did not see the protests as important for democracy (54%). Yet, in debates which were highly reminiscent of those during the Mohammad Cartoon Crisis of 2005-2008, there was also quick consensus around the need to defend freedom of speech, even if the messages conveyed were found offensive. As the two scholars Bangstad and Klinge explain, while Scandinavian political and legal elites see them as “reprehensible” acts, they still also consider them as “political statements protected by secularism and the principle of free speech”. Hence, unlike parliamentary representatives, who are restricted by the Danish Parliament’s (Folketingets) rules against ‘inappropriate statements’ [‘utilbørlige ytringer’], Paludan could thus relatively uninhibitedly continue his highly derogatory and racist actions against Muslims living in Denmark.

Concurrently, there was at the time no legal recourse to curb the rallies within existing Danish legislation. Freedom of speech and assembly are both enshrined in the Danish Constitution (§77 and §79 respectively). The police may “attend” [overvære] protests and while the police must be informed about upcoming demonstrations, they solely have the authority to prohibit assemblies “when there is a risk of danger to public peace”. In most cities, this has inferred a strong police presence at Hard Line rallies, due to the potential for unrest. In some instances, protests have been prohibited, but most commonly, they have been moved to other locations. In terms of hate speech and discriminatory language, the so-called Danish ‘Racism paragraph’ (§266b in the Danish Penal Code) states that:

Anyone who publicly, or with intent to spread in a wider circle, makes a statement or other announcement in which a group of persons is threatened, insulted, or degraded because of race, skin color, national or ethnic origin, religious or sexual orientation, will be punished by a fine or imprisonment for up to 2 years.

Stk. 2. In determining the sentence, it must be regarded as a particularly aggravating circumstance that the matter has the character of a propaganda activity. (Author’s translation1))

Yet, this paragraph has not been employed against the Quran desecration protests.

While numerous countries have legislation prohibiting blasphemy, in Denmark, there were no such faith-based protections in the period, as the pre-existing blasphemy legislation had been repealed in 2017. Interestingly, this repeal was spurred on by the court case against a civilian, John Salvesen, who had burned the Quran in his backyard and uploaded the act to Facebook. He was accused according to the Danish Penal Code §140, which states: “Anyone who publicly makes fun of or mocks the religious teachings or worship of a legally existing religious community in this country is punished by a fine or imprisonment for up to 4 months”. Salvesen employed Rasmus Paludan as his defense lawyer, who strongly advocated for the defense of freedom of speech. This case was only the third of its kind since the introduction of the latest version of the Penal Code in 1930, and whereas the public prosecutor’s office had been encouraged to instigate proceedings using the so-called ‘Blasphemy Paragraph’ regarding, amongst others, the Danish Muhammad Cartoon Crisis in 2007, this was refuted. After the court proceedings had been initiated against Salvesen, the Danish Unity List (Enhedslisten) tabled a motion to repeal the law, and besides from the Social Democrats, all Danish parties voted in favor of its repeal, leading to the dismissal of Salvesen’s trial. While Paludan and Hard Line’s Quran desecration protests did lead to some discussion about the reintroduction of the paragraph in the 2019-2022 period, this was continuously refuted.

Besides the Danish Quran desecration acts, Hard Line’s tactic also quickly spread to other countries.  Experiencing hardships in obtaining continued domestic attention to his cause, in August 2020, Paludan introduced the Quran desecrations to Sweden. As he was initially not allowed to enter the country due to security concerns, other Hard Line activists carried out the first Quran burnings near Rosengård in Malmö. Later, Paludan was permitted to continue the Swedish protests, as it was unveiled that he had Swedish citizenship. Exploiting this fact, Paludan decided to run in the Swedish elections of 2022 and initiated a long protest campaign across the country. In April, several protests led to violent riots and ensuing high media attention. Moreover, having observed the high media and public attention doted to Hard Line’s actions in Denmark, far-right actors in Norway and the Netherlands also adopted the protest form in November 2019 and September 2020 respectively. While the Dutch protests were rather sporadic, the Norwegian Stop Islamisation of Norway (SIAN) organised somewhat frequent Quran desecration protests in the period 2019-2022. Hence, in a similar fashion as, for instance, the transnational spread of PEGIDA branches during the so-called ‘refugee crisis,’ far-right actors abroad either accommodated Paludan’s actions or adopted them themselves, as they saw the futility of such acts for their own domestic causes.

January 2023: Quran Desecrations with Geopolitical Effects

Amid a conflict between Turkey and Sweden regarding Sweden’s potential NATO accession, Paludan took advantage of the geopolitical situation and burned a Quran in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm on January 21, 2023. The desecration act was imitated in the Netherlands, and a week later, Paludan copied the act in Copenhagen, Denmark. News of the events almost immediately spread to international newspapers, leading to huge protests and the summoning of national representatives in several Muslim-majority countries, while Turkey threatened to block Sweden’s NATO accession in part due to this act.

While the Swedish authorities temporarily prohibited similar protests in the country for security reasons, the strong international reactions were only exacerbated by the immediate continuation of Quran desecration acts by Hard Line splinter groups in Denmark, which, again, the Danish authorities could not legally prohibit. Yet, during the summer of 2023, the geopolitical situation further escalated when the Swedish authorities decided to grant permissions to new desecration protests in June. First, on July 12, the UN Human Rights Council tabled a motion condemning Quran burnings as religious hatred; on July 21, Turkey announced an arrest order on Paludan (July 21, 2023); and on July 31, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation published a resolution condemning the acts. Concurrently, the Swedish and Danish intelligence services reported heightened terrorist threats. Both Denmark and Sweden thus faced substantial international pressure to ensure the termination of Quran desecration acts, and heated debates erupted about how to proceed. While the Swedish government (so far) has decided not to introduce new legislation, the situation is different in Denmark.

Heeded by particularly the risks of Islamist terrorism, the Danish government started voicing plans to introduce legislation banning Quran burnings in front of foreign embassies. Shortly after this announcement, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen stated that seeing as ‘It is not an expression [ytring] to burn books,’ it would not be an infringement of freedom of speech to ban the burning of religious scripture. An August opinion poll showed that 51% of the Danes would support such a ban. On August 25, the government then introduced a law proposal, which would make it illegal “anyone who, publicly or with the intention of spreading it in a wider circle, is guilty of improper treatment of a scripture that has significant religious significance for a recognized religious community, or an object that appears to be such a scripture” (Author’s translation2)) (amendment of §110 in the Penal Code).

The proposal was met with strong opposition from various sides. Several critics objected to the fact that the proposed restriction was not due to domestic decisions, but rather based on external pressures, some even referring to it as a bowing down to (‘knæfald’) Islamic states. Numerous actors also objected to the vague wording of the law, as it left many issues up to interpretation. Such criticism was for instance voiced by the police, The Danish Institute for Human Rights, and artists (as artistic expressions were also initially included in the proposal). This led to further precisions of the law and despite opposition from both far left and far right parties (nine parties in total), the law was formally adopted on December 7, 2023, with 94 votes in favor and 77 against.

While one could assume that this reintroduction of blasphemy legislation was a blow to Paludan’s political strategy, he considers it a good development. As he stated to one reporter: ”It is of course the utmost success that it has become such an important topic that the Danish Parliament adopts a law to ban it”. In another interview, he said that he has “pointed out a problem that is clearly so big that you must change the law. This infers that the government recognizes that the Heckler’s veto [voldsmandens veto] is so strong that democracy must give way”. By ‘voldsmandens veto’ (literal Danish translation: ‘Violent perpetrator’), Paludan most likely both refers to the violent counter-protesters at some of his Quran desecration acts (where he has continuously employed the term, especially when police banned protests) and the Islamist terrorists, who have made threats against Denmark. He thus argues that through their violent behavior, the government has had to give in and ban Paludan’s protests and thereby also his freedom of speech. With this argument, which has also been voiced by other debate participants, including the parties objecting the new ‘Quran Law’, he could again use the situation to get his own anti-Islam message across. In this sense, despite facing substantial discursive opposition and criticism from both mainstream politicians, academics, media, and the wider public, anti-Islam non-parliamentary activists were still able to push the Danish constitutional boundaries regarding freedom of speech, while at the same time affecting the geopolitical situation, demonstrating that even far-right minority actors at the non-parliamenta