A recent instance of Quran burning by Stop Islamisation of Norway (SIAN) in the city of Kristiansand, which some called Norway's first, has set off a passionate debate on the acceptance of such actions and the perceived collision between the freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
As the police ultimately intervened to stop SIAN's demonstration amid a brawl between activists and their opponents, they were acting on a new explicit order from Police Director Benedicte Bjørnland, Norwegian broadcaster NRK reported.
“The violation of the Quran could, in a given context, be a violation of Criminal Code section on hate speech”, Bjørnland said, as quoted by the broadcaster.
Bjørnland said that instances of setting fire to all religious symbols must be handled equally and correctly.
“The message is 'if you still do it, we will stop it'”, Bjørnland said, admitting that the assessment of whether to intervene in the freedom of expression and assembly is a difficult issue. “Everyone should speak up as long as they do not violate laws, in this case the Criminal Code. We are not an opinion police, but we have guidance, and when we see violations of the given guidelines, we intervene”.
An important reason for the new interpretation is a threat assessment from the Police Security Service (PST) that public Quran burnings could lead to serious revenge attacks against Norway.
“It is true that in recent months PST has been concerned about the consequences a Quran burning can have. We see it as a trigger event for violent actions, and have provided a description of the situation to the police”, PST senior adviser Martin Bernsen said, as quoted by NRK.
However, the police order is not solely aimed at anti-Islamic provocations, but deals with all kinds of religious symbols being desecrated.
Following the demonstration in Kristiansand, one SIAN member was arrested for failing to comply with police orders.
Kristiansand Mayor Harald Furre, who was present during SIAN's demonstration, condemned the actions.
“I wish the police had intervened earlier and prevented the ignition”, Furre said.
Police chief in the Agder District Morten Sjustøl called such actions controversial, stressing that they stir up strong engagement.
SIAN leader Lars Thorsen called the action “a good way to visualise the negative power that Islam is” and made it clear that reprises of the action are not to be excluded.
Stop Islamisation of Norway dates back to the early 2000s and claims to counter the proliferation of Islam, which it views as a totalitarian political ideology that violates the Norwegian Constitution as well as democratic and human values.
Thorsen is no stranger to political controversy, having recently received a 30 day suspended jail sentence and a fine for distributing pamphlets in the Norwegian capital that called Muslims “notorious sexual predators” who “rape in epidemic proportions”.