Burning the Qur’an: Blasphemy, Hate Speech, and Free Speech in Norway

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On November 16 2019, the chairperson of the far-right and racist organization Stop The Islamisation of Norway (SIAN), Mr Lars Thorsen, set fire to a copy of the Qur’an at a SIAN demonstration in the main square of Kristiansand in Southern Norway. The act of desecrating the Qur’an was swiftly condemned by local and national politicians in Norway. As news of the desecration went international, it caused outrage in Muslim-dominated countries like Pakistan and Turkey in particular. Seemingly unaware of the simple fact that Norway abolished the last legal statutes against blasphemy by an act of Parliament in 2015, the Pakistani Senate adopted a resolution calling for Norwegian police to prosecute the perpetrator for blasphemy.

In this article, the Norwegian anthropologist Sindre Bangstad provides a backgrounder to the relevant legal distinctions between hate speech and blasphemy under Norwegian legal statutes past and present. He argues that whilst acts of wanton desecration of the Qur’an and other books considered sacred by religious adherents can in reality not be prosecuted under any existing laws in Norway, a case may be made for prosecuting the perpetrators for the racist hate speech against Muslims that preceded the Qur’an-burning in Kristiansand last November.

A backgrounder to SIAN

In 2015, I served as an expert witness in a civil defamation lawsuit brought before the Magistrate’s Court in Kristiansand in Southern Norway. Kristiansand is the fifth largest city in the small Northern European country of Norway, and sits centrally in what has historically been known as a proverbial Christian ‘Bible belt’ in Norway.  The surrounding region has also since the 1980s been known as something of a stronghold for far-right and racist organizing in Norway: it was in this region that the far-right and racist Popular Movement Against Immigration (FMI), which under the leadership of the former social democratic local councillor Arne Myrdal (1935-2007) developed strong ties with Norwegian neo-Nazi skinhead movements and were involved in violent attacks on asylum seekers as well as anti-racists in the late 1980s and early 1990s, emerged. The Agder region is also the home ground for the far-right activist Hege Storhaug, whose monumental pushing of all kinds of racist and discriminatory ideas about Muslims online in Norway comes with government funding.

In spite of much dedicated work from the municipality in Kristiansand in recent years to further the idea of Kristiansand as a diverse «city for all» , the city, which is also home to a sizeable number of Muslims from various parts of the world, has long been something of a stronghold for SIAN. SIAN, whose predecessor FOMI or Forum Against Muslim Immigration (established in Oslo in 2004) had a former Norwegian Waffen SS soldier during World War II and a Holocaust denier, as well as a high court lawyer known for his public defenses of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, also has close links to the far-right political party The Democrats. A party which in a breakthrough election in Kristiansand in September 2019 obtained a record 13.4 percent of the local votes and gained ten representatives on the local city council.

The civil defamation lawsuit had been brought by the then chairperson of SIAN, the former founding member of the Norwegian Humanist Association (HEF) in Norway, Mr Arne Tumyr, against a local imam and former industrial engineer by the name of Mr Akmal Ali, who in response to a question from media had made his refusal to meet Mr Tumyr for a debate at the local library in Kristiansand on the grounds that Mr Tumyr’s organization SIAN represented racism adamantly clear. In my fifty page report presented to the court, as an expert witness, key parts of which I later published as a journal article, I concluded that, in light of the available empirical evidence drawn from a detailed study of Mr Tumyr and SIAN’s statements and published material since its official funding in 2008, Mr Ali was fully within his right to characterize Tumyr’s organization as racist.

Representing himself in court, and trying to line up central SIAN members, Mr Tumyr lost the civil defamation lawsuit with flying colours. Tumyr’s appeal of the case to the Agder Court of Appeals was later overturned 3-0. The verdict was in fact quite significant. For one thing, the Kristiansand Magistrate’s Court put an effective stop to Tumyr and SIAN’s long-standing practice of forcing financial compensation out of any publisher or media outlet daring to point to the obvious fact than the organization could rightly be described as racist. It was also the first time on historical record that a Norwegian court at any level accepted scholarly arguments drawn from the vast body of international scholarship on cultural racism from the 1980s and onwards. What did not change with this verdict, however, was Norwegian mainstream media’s long-standing and deeply problematic practice of referring to assorted far-right and racist organizations like SIAN by the misnomer of their simply being «critical of Islam» rather than Islamophobic and/or racist. Nor did it in the least change the habits of certain Norwegian academics citing SIAN rhetoric about a supposed «Islamic invasion» of Norway – in a country with an estimated Muslim population of no more than 4.2% by 2019.

Blasphemy in Norwegian law

According to available historical sources, blasphemy was first formally outlawed in Norway in 1687 at a time when Norway was under Danish sovereignity. The Danish king  Christian the 4th’s Norwegian law prohibited blasphemy under the penalty of convicted blasphemers having their tongue cut out and being beheaded. Interestingly enough, the only Norwegian ever known to have been sentenced to death for blasphemy was one Anders Suhm, a pupil at the Latin School in Kristiansand who set fire to a church in the town in the 1730s. Suhm who was eighteen at the time of his offences, was never executed: he managed to flee the local prison and Kristiansand after plying his prison wardens with copious amounts of alcohol. From 1902 to 2015, Norway had a criminal statute against blasphemy on its statute books in the form of Norwegian General Penal Code §142 which had been introduced three year’s before Norway became a sovereign nation in 1905. In this code, blasphemy was defined as entailing the active «contempt for any profession of faith whose performance is permitted in the realm.» Which is to say that the provision – unlike its modern Danish legal parallel – could also potentially be used to prosecute blasphemy against faiths other than Christian ones. Like its 1687 legal predecessor, it also was never much in use. The blasphemy law was last used in a criminal conviction in 1912, when the Norwegian free-thinker and social democrat Arnfred Olsen was sentenced to a fine of 10 Norwegian kroner for penning and printing a newspaper editorial deemed blasphemous of Christianity. Olsen had in his editorial in the magazine Fritenkeren characterized Christmas as “a great fraud.” That Norwegian laws against blasphemy would remain something of a proverbial «sleeping provision» was really confirmed by the unsuccessful 1933 attempt by Norwegian Christian Conservatives to obtain a conviction against the Norwegian poet Arnulf Øverland (1889-1968) for blasphemy for a 1933 speech for the Student Society at the University of Oslo entitled «Christianity: The Tenth Plague of the Nation.» In 1988, a self-constituted Muslim Defence Council  attempted to use the legal provisions relating to blasphemy in order to bring a criminal complaint against the Norwegian publishers of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. But the attempt was eventually dropped. In 2006, Norwegian Muslims also reported Norwegian newspapers that re-printed fascimiles of the Danish cartoons to Norwegian police with reference to blasphemy provisions, but no charges were ever brought.

And so when I was in January this year invited by the Muslim Council of Agder to a public meeting design to provide local Muslim leaders and congregants, representatives of the Kristiansand Municipality, and local politicians with necessary information about the ambit of Norwegian laws, my first and most important talking point related to the fact that in Norway, blasphemy laws have never really been much applied, and that current Norwegian laws simply do not permit Norwegian police to charge anyone with blasphemy. The legal representative of the Muslim Council of Agder, which had filed a criminal complaint against three named individuals involved in the SIAN demonstration at the main square in Kristiansand on November 16 2019, certainly knew as much. For in the criminal complaint presented to the local police after the Qur’an-burning, the reference was not to crimes against the abolished Norwegian General Penal Code §142 but instead to Norwegian General Penal Code § 185 on hate speech. This includes provisions relating to hate speech against people living in Norway on the grounds of their religious faith.

Norwegian laws on hate speech

There have been hate speech laws on the statute books in Norway since 1961. § 135 was first introduced as a result of a disturbing spate of anti-semitic attacks in Germany in 1960. As a result of Norway’s ratification of the UN’s 1965 International Convention For The Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in 1970, Norway introduced a revised and amended Norwegian General Penal Code § 135 (a) the same year. This legal provision was from 1970 to 2015 and was often popularly referred to as Norway’s «racism paragraph.» That was, however, always something of a misnomer.  For it was in the relevant period before it was replaced by Norwegian General Penal Code § 185 as a result of a change of the entire Norwegian General Penal Code which came into effect in 2015, also amended to include protection against hate speech on the grounds of an individual’s religious faith and/or life stance, sexual orientation, and mental or physical disabilities.

There have, over the past two decades, been any number of Norwegian media commentators, academics, and politicians expressing concern over what they have regarded as a potential ‘slippery slope’ in Norwegian hate speech law which would enable any person of faith to use these provisions for the purpose of protecting their faith against alleged blasphemers.

But the record of Norwegian jurisprudence relating to hate speech laws in Norway actually speaks for itself: it demonstrates that this is an unfounded fear on the part of the non-religious in Norway. In a standard-setting verdict against a Norwegian far-right activist who had distrubuted some ten thousand amateurish and stencillated racist leaflets warning against Pakistani migrants in Norway, the Norwegian Supreme Court in 1981 made it perfectly clear that the defendant, Mrs Vivi Krogh (1919-2014), was within her rights to say practically anything she wanted about Islam and immigration. It was hate speech targeting Muslims as individuals, and not their faith, that she was convicted for.  And the legal record under Norwegian General Penal Code §135 (a) and later 185, very much suggests that Norwegian courts at all levels have taken the message of this verdict to heart.

Some readers may at this point wonder why the local police in Kristiansand did not intervene more forcefully to prevent SIAN’s Qur’an-burning in the first place. Local police in Kristiansand had in prior meetings with Lars Thorsen and SIAN made it clear that they would not accept the use of open fire at the demonstration. This precondition was simply ignored by Thorsen and SIAN. Fearing acts of terrorist retribution from salafi-jihadists, the Norwegian Police Directorate (POD) in Oslo issued an operational order in advance of the SIAN demonstration, instructing local police districts throughout Norway to prevent public Qur’an-burnings. This operational order, signed by the newly appointed POD Director Mrs Benedicte Bjørnland, who had a background as director of the Norwegian Police Security Services (PST) from 2012 to 2019, made the legal error of arguing that public Qur’an-burnings or desecration of the Qur’an could legally be stopped by police by reference to the Norwegian hate speech paragraph in Norwegian General Penal Code § 185.

POD’s order caused much consternation in the local police district of Kristiansand, and was publicly retracted by the Norwegian Minister of Justice soon after the Qur’an-burning. So in spite of Norwegian police having serious concerns relating to the public order consequences of public Qur’an-burning  adheres to an internal legal interpretation which holds that the Norwegian Constitution § 100, last amended by the Norwegian Parliament in 2014, by declaring most acts of «prior censorship» against political demonstrations by public authorities in Norway to violate the Constitution itself.

What is missing in this interpretation is, of course, that relevant international laws on acceptable limitations on freedom of expression due to public order concerns – such as the International Covenant on Civil And Political Rights Articles 18 and 19 and the European Convention on Human Rights Articles 9 and 10 – do in fact provide Norwegian police authorities with an opportunity to adopt prohibitive measures against public Qur’an-burnings should they wish to do so.

Before setting fire to the Qur’an on November 16, 2019, Mr Lars Thorsen made a virulently and foam-in-the-mouth racist speech in which he referred to Muslim men as “sexual predators” and Muslims in general as “murder zombies” [sic]. Thorsen’s characterization of Muslims here is in line with long-standing SIAN rhetoric about Muslims, in which the spectre of Muslim males as potential rapists not only of their own children and women, but also as potential rapists of non-Muslim Norwegian women, as well as Muslims as terrorists, looms dominant. The former is a classical racist trope levelled against black and brown men for centuries in the course of European colonialism and white supremacist regimes in the US South and apartheid South Africa; the latter an addition mainly brought by al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, and its aftermath in the so-called «War on Terror.» In the seconds leading up to Thorsen setting fire to a copy of the Qur’an, two copies of the Qur’an were also thrown into a garbage bin at the SIAN demo by SIAN members, including the former SIAN chairperson Mr Arne Tumyr. As Mr Thorsen set fire to the Qur’an, three Muslim counter-demonstrators jumped the protective police fences surrounding Mr Thorsen and tried to assault him. Media photographs from the scene documented local police putting the counter-demonstrators to the ground, whilst Mr Thorsen is trying to run away. Mr Thorsen was taken into police custody under police escort for his own safety, but released later in the day. The Muslim counter-demontrators who had jumped the fence were detained and fined.

Photo by Kjartan Bjelland, Fædrelandsvennen 16.11.2019
Photo of the scene right after Lars Thorsen (dressed in a brown quasi-military Home Guard outfit) had set fire to the Qur’an in Kristiansand on Nov 16 2019. Local police can be seen pulling counter-demonstrators who had jumped the protective police fence surrounding Thorsen and tried to assault Thorsen to the ground. Thorsen was brought to the local police station as a protective measure, but he was released without charge afterwards. The counter-demonstrators who had jumped the police fence were fined and released. In the background is Kristiansand’s historical Lutheran Christian Dome Church. Facsimile from the local newspaper Fædrelandsvennen. Photo by Kjartan Bjelland of Fædrelandsvennen.


Merely eight days before setting fire to the Qur’an during the SIAN demonstration in Kristiansand, Mr Thorsen of SIAN had been convicted for hate speech under Norwegian General Penal Code §185 by Oslo Magistrate’s Court in the Norwegian capital of Oslo, for speeches and distribution of SIAN material in Oslo East in 2018. In his 2018 distribution materal, he used the very same terms about Muslims – i. e. Muslim males as «sexual predators» and Muslims as «murder-zombies» – that preceded his public Qur’an-burning in Kristiansand.

I attended Thorsen and his domestic partner Mrs Anna ‘Fanny’ Bråten’s trial for hate speech – brought by the only dedicated hate crimes unit Norway has to date — at the Manglerud Police Station in Oslo East at Oslo Magistrate’s Court in October 2019. Presenting himself in a highly theatrical fashion as something of an auto-didact ‘expert on Islam’ (though he has no relevant degrees in Islamic studies, and does not have a command of Arabic or any other relevant foreign languages), Mr Thorsen appeared for his one-day court appearance armed with copies of the Qur’an and Islamic books of tafsir (exegesis) strategically placed at the witness box whilst testifying to the court. In attendance in the front rows were also SIAN supporters, which included well-known figures from the Norwegian neo-Nazi scene in the 1990s. Thorsen did not exactly endear himself to the court by asking, on several occasions, the young presiding female magistrate and the court «what they knew about Islam», as if to imply that he had through his highly eclectic personal studies of Islam acquired some mystical knowledge about the purported «real essence of Islam» that no one else in the court had access to. This rhetorical strategy (for that is of course what it is) is well-known in the Norwegian far-right and racist circles pushing racism against Muslims on- and offline, who are often quite convinced that they have unique and privileged access to the purported evils of Muslims.

But his speech in Kristiansand eight days later demonstrated once more than Thorsen appeared intellectually unable to make the distinctions between hatred of Islam, which would have been within the realms of the legally permissible, and the hatred of Muslims, which is not.

Where to now for the hate speech versus free speech conundrum in Norway?

The young magistrate who handed down a verdict of thirty days conditional imprisonment (which means that the sentence will not be served in prison) against Mr Lars Thorsen of SIAN on November 8, 2019 got one thing about Norwegian hate speech jurisprudence seriously wrong. Recall that the Vivi Krogh verdict of 1981 made it clear that in Norway it was a crime to commit hate speech against invididuals (e.g. Muslims), but a person could say whatever they wanted against a religion (e.g. Islam). But in 2019, the young magistrate’s verdict refers to Thorsen having committed «serious violations of the integrity of Muslims and Islam.» Under relevant Norwegian jurisprudence relating to hate speech, it is persons, not their faiths, whose “integrity” may be violated by hate speech.

The verdict against Mr Thorsen has been appealed both by Mr Thorsen and the public prosecutor in the case. This is welcome news, in as much as it provides a higher Norwegian court the opportunity to correct the erroneous interpretation of relevant Norwegian jurisprudence, as apparent from the verdict of the Oslo Magistrate’s Court in 2019. As the global COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down the processing of legal cases throughout the Norwegian legal system, no date for the appeals trial has yet been set.

Back in Kristiansand, the senior and co-ordinating prosecutor at Kristiansand Police filed the Muslim Council of Agder’s criminal complaint against Mr Lars Thorsen and two of his fellow SIAN accomplices on November 16 2019 as a case involving «no criminal offence.» In a stern rebuke of the co-ordinating prosecutor at Kristiansand Police, the state prosecutor of Agder Province in February 2020 sent the hate speech case filed by the Muslim Council of Agder back to Kristiansand with a demand that the case be investigated anew. To add to the pressure, the state prosecutor in Agder had also consulted the Prosecutor General in Oslo, Mr Jørn Maurud, about the case. The Office of the Prosecutor-General in Norway has ever since 2002 been central in the work to get local policing districts in Norway to prioritize various forms of hate crimes – including hate speech.

In a context of widespread media framing of the Kristiansand case as one involving local Muslims in Kristiansand against the far-right activists of SIAN, the Norwegian Centre Against Racism (ARS) in Oslo also filed a criminal complaint for hate speech against Lars Thorsen of SIAN with Kristiansand police in March 2020.

For now, this is where the case stands: the outcome of the Kristiansand case may signal that standards for taking hate crimes and hate speech seriously and actually prosecuting them will vary so much that it depends on where you happen to live whether local police prosecutors will accept to enforce actually existing Norwegian laws. That would be bad news indeed for both interreligious relations in an increasingly multireligious and multicultural Norway, and for ensuring Norwegian Muslims’  trust and confidence in Norwegian police.

Most people will be able to discern the difference between the free speech that a liberal, democratic, and secular country like Norway remains committed to upholding, and the racist hate speech that threatens to undermine the bonds of a shared respect for equal rights to human life and dignity, which hold humans together and helps preserve solidarity and democracy. Given how much rampant abuse of blasphemy laws there are around the world – and not the least in Muslim-majority countries   – Norway’s abolishment of blasphemy provisions under Norwegian law in 2015 must on balance be considered welcome news. However, failure to uphold relevant Norwegian laws on hate speech in a consistent manner throughout policing districts in Norway should not be welcome news.


Sindre Bangstad is a social anthropologist and works as a research professor at KIFO (Institute For Church, Religion And Worldview Research) in Oslo, Norway. He has undertaken ethnographic fieldwork among Muslims in Cape Town in South Africa and in Oslo in Norway. Bangstad has published extensively on racism, hate speech, Islamophobia, secularism, and the far-right. Bangstad’s 2014 monograph Anders Breivik And The Rise of Islamophobia is Bangstad’s most well-known work internationally. In 2019, Bangstad was awarded the AIME (Anthropology In The Media Award) from the American Anthropological Association (AAA) for his long-standing work of disseminating anthropological knowledge and insights through the public media.




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