Should burning holy books be banned?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


In August 2023, the Danish government proposed a bill banning the public burning of the Holy Koran, stating that it will send an ‘important political signal’ to the rest of the world. Sweden is also considering amending legal bills which will give greater police powers to refuse permits for such demonstrations. The recent acts of public burning of the Koran have become a national security issue for both countries, with threats by foreign Islamic governments, as well as Russia, and domestic threats to security internally.

The public desecration of the Koran has not only been enacted by far-right organisations against their perceived fear of Islamisation of their countries. Salwan Momika, a refugee in Sweden from Iraq, set fire to pages of the Koran outside a Swedish mosque on the first day of Eid. Allegedly defending freedom of speech, Momika said: ‘this is a democracy. It is in danger if they tell us we can’t do this.’ The Iranian Danish artist Firoozeh Bazrafkan recently staged a public-art action outside the Iranian embassy where she shredded the Koran with a kitchen grater. Bazrafkan described her performance as a tribute to the brave women and men of Iran struggling for freedom.

While holy books are not being burned outside embassies in the UK, there have been protests and public rows about the Koran. Four boys were suspended from Kettlethorpe High School in Wakefield – including one autistic pupil – after a Koran was allegedly dropped in a corridor. Police became involved, and the child’s parents were even asked to engage in a filmed public apology. Meanwhile, revenge attacks have taken place in Pakistan with the burning down of Christian churches after the Koran was allegedly desecrated.

Should there be limits to freedom of expression, especially regarding the desecration of holy books? Most incidents have involved the Koran – is it easy to defend the desecration of a sacred text when it is not your own? Would opposition to law changes be softened if it were the Bible being burned in town centres or mistreated in schools? Can we defend free speech but oppose acts that encourage violent reactions – especially those which might pose a threat to national or domestic security and to peoples’ lives? Or should Western governments stay out of policing political, religious acts of protest – however offensive – for fear of creating new blasphemy laws?

Manick Govinda
guest co-curator, Culture Tensions, Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, Poland

Khadija Khan
journalist and commentator

Lois McLatchie
senior communications officer, ADF UK; commentator

Hardeep Singh
journalist, author

Peter Whittle
founder and director, New Culture Forum; host, NCF YouTube channel

Dr Piers Benn
philosopher, author and lecturer