1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Freedom of SpeechEurope

Quran burning: How much blasphemy is allowed in Europe?

July 22, 2023

Freedom of speech is seen as a key pillar of democracy. However, provocations directed against religious communities repeatedly spark debate about the limits of this freedom. To what extent is it acceptable to mock God?

A casually dressed young man standing in front of an orange building, holding a Quran aloft and speaking into a megaphone. Another man carrying two Swedish flags stands in front of him, filming.
The burning of a Quran in Sweden in June 2023 sparked protests in many Muslim countriesImage: Stefan Jerrevång/TT NEWS AGENCY/picture alliance

Freedom of expression and media freedom are firmly anchored in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. It is considered important for democratic societies to be able to tolerate a variety of opinions, even if these may offend religious sensibilities.

However, this repeatedly raises the question of the extent to which critical or mocking statements about people's religious beliefs are acceptable, and how a society should deal with them. Below is a summary of some of the provocations that have been made against religious communities, and how blasphemy is dealt with in Europe.

Denmark bans the burning of the Quran

The Danish parliament on Thursday approved a law that would ban the burning of the Quran and other religious texts. There had been a spate of incidents earlier this year in which people burned the Quran in public. Freedom of expression in Denmark had long been protected to such an extent that people could burn the Quran without facing legal consequences. Now, though, people who burn holy books could face fines or up to two years in jail.

Danish Justice Minister Peter Hummelgaard said that the burning of the Quran  was a "fundamentally despicable and unfriendly act" that "damaged Denmark and its interests." He said that the country's security was one of the main reasons for the proposed law.

Earlier this year, Denmark raised its terror alert level after the Al Qaeda terror network called for attacks in Denmark and Sweden.

 Artists and intellectuals have warned that the law could have a negative impact on freedom of expression in Denmark. In a petition, they called on the government not to pass it saying that it represents an "attack" on art, political freedom of expression and press freedom.

In 2005, there were protests in the Arab world after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons on Islam, which were considered offensive by some. The case prompted a debate about freedom of expression, artistic freedom and blasphemy in many countries. 

The Danish prime minister at the time distanced himself from the publication of the cartoons but also pointed out that freedom of the press and freedom of expression were highly valued in Denmark. 

Until 2017, Denmark still had a de facto law against blasphemy. However, there were only a few cases in which it was actually implemented ― before it was abolished altogether. The government says that the new law is not about restricting freedom of expression. 

Denmark moves to ban burning of the Quran

Quran-burning in Sweden

Apart from Denmark there has been a considerable number of cases of people burning Qurans in Sweden in 2023. One particular incident drew considerable attention: In June, Salwan Momika, an Iraqi man who had fled to Sweden,stomped on pages of the Quran and also set fire to the book in front of the main mosque in the capital Stockholm. 

He and other activists had already organized similar actions in the previous months, triggering outrage and violent protests across the country as well as beyond. They also raised tension between Sweden and certain Muslim-majority states
While the Swedish government condemned the actions, it also insisted on protecting the freedom of expression and said that it was up to the police whether to allow such a protest to go ahead or not. 

The police, however, has said that though it bears responsibility for authorizing such public actions, it is not responsible for the contents. 

There was an attempt this year to ban such forms of protests and the burning of holy books, but it failed because the right to gather and demonstrate is protected in Sweden. Like in many other Western states, there is no blasphemylaw. 

Momika is currently still under investigation for incitement to hatred. In October 2023, a man was convicted for burning a Quran and bacon on a barbecue, on which there was a sign with a derogatory comment about Prophet Mohammad, in front of the cathedral in Linkoping in 2020. It was the first time that a Swedish court convicted somebody for burning a Quran. For the court, this action targeted Muslims directly and not Islam as a religion. Unlike in Denmark, there are currently no plans to change the law in Sweden. 

But Sweden has also raised its terror alert level, citing the heightened risk of Islamist terrorist attacks. In mid-August, the country was put on level 4 alert on a scale of 1 – 5. 

Three hands held aloft, two making victory signs, one holding a Quran. In the background, smoke rises from a building behind a barrier topped with barbed wire.
July 2023: Demonstrators stormed the Swedish embassy in Baghdad after another Quran-burning was announcedImage: AHMED SAAD/REUTERS

Semi-naked on the altar of Cologne Cathedral

In Germany, too, freedom of expression is enshrined in the country's Basic Law. Article 5 states that everyone has the right "freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing and pictures." There are, however, limits.

Germany is one of the few European countries that protects religious communities with a so-called blasphemy paragraph. Anyone who publicly "reviles the religion or ideology of others in a manner suited to causing a disturbance of the public peace" can be sentenced to up to three years in prison. This is not, however, intended to criminalize mockery of God in general, only insults that are detrimental to public peace.

A young woman stands on the altar of a cathedral, arms raised and legs akimbo. She is shouting; her top half has been pixelated; the word GOD is painted on her belly. Priests and other men stand around.
An activist jumped onto the altar in protest during Christmas mass at Cologne Cathedral in 2013Image: Elke Lehrenkrauss/dpa/picture alliance

Section 166 of the German Penal Code is very rarely invoked. In 2006, a 61-year-old man was given a suspended prison sentence after distributing rolls of toilet paper with the word " Quran" printed on them. And in 2013, an activist was fined for painting her naked torso with the words "I am God" and jumping onto the altar of Cologne Cathedral during the Christmas Mass. However, she was only prosecuted for disturbing the practice of religion and was not convicted of blasphemy.

Insulting the Prophet is not usually a case for the courts, and blasphemy is only subject to legal punishment in Germany if it has serious consequences.

French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo

In 2015, two Islamists carried out an attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people. Prior to this, the magazine had published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, which had sparked anger and outrage among Muslims around the world.

A few days after the attack on the magazine's office, France's prime minister, Manuel Valls, appeared before the National Assembly and declared that blasphemy would never be part of French law.

France's president, Emmanuel Macron, has also defended the "right to blasphemy" in his country. This means that, in France, freedom of expression includes being allowed to write or say what others consider blasphemy.

Blasphemy has not been an offense in France since 1881. The country has observed the strict separation of church and state for almost 120 years. Historically, this secularism was an attempt to curb the influence of the church in the country. The principle still enjoys a high level of acceptance today among the French population.

Poland: Our Lady with the Rainbow

Poland is regarded as a very Catholic country, one in which the Church still has a great deal of influence on public life. As in other countries, the Polish constitution also guarantees freedom of expression. However, in recent years, artists in particular have repeatedly been charged with blasphemy.

In 2019, there was an uproar over a Madonna with a halo in the colors of the LGBTQ+ movement. All over the country, people filed criminal complaints with the public prosecutor's office against the three young women who had circulated the image. They were accused of "offending religious feelings" by portraying the Madonna in the colors of the rainbow. This is a criminal offense in Poland, punishable by up to two years in prison. The three women were eventually acquitted. The court's verdict was that, although the action was "provocative," they had not intended to offend.

While some countries like Poland and Germany still have paragraphs on blasphemy in their criminal codes, many European countries have already abolished them. These include Ireland, where the paragraph was repealed in 2018; Norway and the Netherlands, along with Sweden, also recently removed similar paragraphs from their codes. The issue has frequently been raised in Germany, with many people calling for the relevant paragraph to be scrapped, in the interests of freedom of expression.

This article was translated from German. It was originally published on July 22, 2023, and amended on December 6, 2023, to reflect new developments in Denmark. It was updated again on Dec. 7, 2023 to include the news about Denmark's new bill on the Quran.

Silja Thoms stands and smiles as she looks into the camera.
Silja Thoms Senior Editor and Reporter