The Swedish Freedom of Press Act has for a long time been a source of pride in the Nordic nation. Especially this year as it was awarded a UNESCO Memory of the World status. Championed by the Lutheran priest and member of parliament, Anders Chydenius (often referred to as the Adam Smith of the North as also he pioneered economic liberalism), in 1766 it is the world’s first law supporting both the freedom of press and freedom of expression.
When the act was passed it stopped state censorship and introduced the principle of public access to official records in Sweden, even if defamatory remarks of the king and the Swedish Church was still criminalized. Chydenius described freedom of expression as “the most precious possession of a free country.” Put differently: “The apple of the country’s eye.”
It wouldn’t be until 1949 that the Swedish blasphemy law was completely abolished — replaced by the much more watered down “Peace of Faith” Act which was in turn repealed in 1970. At the time, it was seen as a milestone for freedom of speech, not least for the freedom of minorities to express their beliefs and criticize religious ideas. Both freethinkers and those belonging to the free church movement had been victims of the ban on criticizing the Swedish Lutheran church’s dogmas. For example, in 1884, the famous playwright August Strindberg was charged with mocking the Lord’s Supper.
Today, ironically, the right to blaspheme is being challenged on the same grounds: To protect the religious beliefs of minorities. When prominent politicians such as former Prime Minister Carl Bildt, former Foreign Minister and the UN’s former Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, as well as the human rights organization, Civil Rights Defenders, argue that the burning of private copies of the Koran should be regarded as agitation against an ethnic group, this is what they say. According to them, and a sizable portion of the Swedish electorate, Koran burning should be criminalized.
Who would have thought that the world’s most secular nations would include a push to adapt Muslim blasphemy laws?
The recent Koran burnings in Sweden outside the Turkish embassy and the Stockholm Mosque, which have been met by protests, violence, attacks against Swedish embassies and anger among the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Conference — including increased threats to Sweden as well as Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan’s ever-growing list of demands to support Sweden’s NATO application — can be described as derogatory and disrespectful. They are hardly expressions of reasonable religious critique or debate about problematic ideas within Islam. But this is part of what constitutes freedom of religion and expression: Vulgar, disrespectful, derogatory and critical expressions about religion and other worldviews are unavoidable in an open and free society. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religious criticism.
As the author Salman Rushdie once said:
“Nobody has the right to not feel offended. That right doesn’t exist in any declaration”. But as he concluded in 2015, if he had written the Satanic Verses today he would have been accused of “offending an ethnic and cultural minority.”
The same argument that is now used to outlaw Koran burnings in Sweden.
As a professing Christian in perhaps the most secular country in the world, I can feel sympathy for the sorrow many Muslims feel when they observe the burning of their holy book. For example, when Swedish Public Service Television shared a comedy clip on its Facebook page in 2019, where a famous comedian holds a crucifix in front of his genitals while singing about Jesus of Nazareth. Many of the Christians that protested against this had themselves fled from Middle Eastern countries where they would had been persecuted for their faith in Christ.
Or the despair many ordinary churchgoers felt as the photo exhibition Ecce Homo, where Jesus is portrayed from an LGBT-perspective and in homoerotic situations, was shown in Uppsala Cathedral in 1998. As late as May of this year, the Ecce Homo-exhibition was shown in the European Parliament, where a traditional Nativity scene for a long time had been denied by officials as it would be ”potentially offensive” for non-believers.
Now several Swedish public figures, politicians, professors, journalists — even bishops — argue that a religious provocation towards Muslim believers should be outlawed. Naturally, prohibiting Koran burnings wouldn’t be enough. Either to handle certain Swedish Muslim’s sensibilities or the OIC’s wishes. Provocateurs can tear a Koran apart, stand on it, kick it around. As a survey conducted by the news site Doku among several Mosques in Sweden showed: 30 of 31 spokespersons say that they want to outlaw not just Koran burnings but also “actions that upset, mock, ridicule, and offend religions and believers’ feelings.”
As a Christian, it’s easy to see the double standards when it comes to Islam. And the reason is simple: In 2009, when the Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm was to show Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s documentary Submission, which deals with the situation of women in certain Muslim contexts, parts of the film were cut as they were considered offensive. This was after the museum had consulted an imam. Ironically, the theme of the exhibition was freedom of expression.
In 2010, when the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg was about to show the exhibition Jerusalem, which tackled homosexuality in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the artist Elisabeth Ohlson (the artist behind Ecce Homo) was asked by the museum’s leadership to remove anything related to Islam for fear of threats.
In 2021, after the tragic death of artist and provocateur, Lars Vilks, the chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, Gitte Orskou, declined to exhibit his Muhammad drawing. She argued that the work was based on “hateful and offensive iconography.” A more reasonable interpretation of why the museum leadership didn’t want to show the work was probably the threats directed at both the artist and anyone showing the drawing. In the same interview, Orskou was positive about other provocative works of art directed at Christians. Like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (a crucifix immersed in urine) and Maurizio Cattelan’s La Nona Ora (The Pope Killed by a Meteorite).
It is therefore not surprising that Sweden is being subjected to the pressure campaign from the OIC and others that we are now seeing. After all, Europe and Sweden have shown time and again in the recent past that the threat of violence against anyone that defames Islam pays off. The result: The blasphemy code which was abolished is now reintroduced in a new form and a step backwards for freedom of expression.
In many ways, mocking and slandering Christianity has been fair game in Sweden without pundits reacting, as the party leader of Christian Democrats Ebba Busch recently put it. Ironically, this underscored Busch’s point which was about believers tolerating religious provocations. Christians are expected to turn the other cheek, while writers, comedians and provocateurs are not threatened by them. When it comes to Islam, the situation has proven to be different.
Jacob Rudenstrand is the deputy general secretary of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance and author of “The First Right: Freedom of Religion. Freedom from Religion.”
Produced in association with Religion Unplugged