Norway dispatch: annual police threat assessment highlights risk of extremism in the wake of Quran burnings elsewhere in Scandinavia Dispatches
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Norway dispatch: annual police threat assessment highlights risk of extremism in the wake of Quran burnings elsewhere in Scandinavia

Oksana Bidnenko is a staff correspondent for JURIST in Norway. She is a law student at the Riga Graduate School of Law in Riga, Latvia, and is currently an exchange student at the University of Oslo. 

On Monday the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) published its 2023 threat assessment. The PST describes several threats to Norway’s security, both domestically and internationally. Predictably, on the international level the report is mainly dedicated to the relations between Norway and Russia this year since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Domestically, however, one of the most concerning issues named is the “potential rise of extremist violence and terrorist plots” due to recent burnings of the Quran in Sweden and Denmark.

The report said:

Islamic extremism and right-wing extremism are expected to represent the greatest terrorist threats to Norwegian society. PST believes there is an even chance that Islamic extremists and right-wing extremists will attempt to carry out terrorist acts in Norway in 2023.

The threat of terror against Norway is real. Even though Islamic extremism currently enjoys little support in Norway, we have nevertheless seen several serious acts of terrorism in recent years. Statements or actions perceived as insults or oppression of Muslims or the Islamic religion may contribute to radicalisation and, in the worst case, motivate acts of terrorism in Norway.

On February 3, a group of protesters planned to burn a copy of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Oslo. Norweigan police say that burning the Quran is a legal political statement in Norway, however, but the police did not allow this burning to take place due to security concerns.

The government of Turkiye had strongly denounced the anti-Islam group’s plans, calling them a “provocative act,” according to a source in the Turkish foreign ministry, which also said that the ministry had requested that the rally be canceled. The planned rally had been brought up at a meeting by Turkey, according to Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Additionally, the Turkish source has added that burning Quran is considered as a “clear hate crime”.

There is no explicit law in Norway that forbids burning the Quran or any other religious text. Nonetheless, such actions can still be subject to constraints under other laws, like those barring hate speech or violence incitement. The right to freedom of expression, which includes the ability to express opinions, thoughts, and beliefs as well as the freedom to disseminate knowledge and ideas, is guaranteed under Article 100 of the Norwegian Constitution. But, in some cases, such as when it is necessary to defend the rights and dignity of others, this right may be subject to constraints and restrictions.

Incitement to violence and hate speech are both prohibited under Norwegian criminal law. Hate speech and other manifestations that aim to marginalize, denigrate, or demean an individual or group of individuals because of their race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation are illegal under Section 135a of the Criminal Code. Both encouragement to violence and expressions that are likely to produce fear or disturbance among others are prohibited by section 185 and section 227 of the Criminal Code, respectively.

The law in Norway also includes protections from harassment and discrimination for both people and groups. The Anti-Discrimination Act forbids discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and other factors. This implies that violators of this legislation may face legal repercussions for using hate speech or other types of discrimination against a certain group of people.

The PST report says, encouragingly:

Support for Islamic extremism in Norway is considered low at present. However, since much of today’s radicalisation is expected to take place through encrypted digital platforms, it is challenging to detect. That being said, we have no physical openly extremist communities in Norway at the moment, like the ones we had some years ago. All the same, there is little to corroborate that known Islamic extremists have been deradicalised. At times, Islamic extremists may be less active, but they could be re-motivated by relevant banner issues or events.

At the same time, however, the report ominously continues:

Burning and desecrating the Koran are also examples of incidents we see being experienced as offensive or provocative. In Norway, we expect that such events will also occur in 2023. Debates and events in Norway that are perceived as hampering the exercise of religion will also exacerbate the perception that the West is at war with Islam. When such incidents take place in Norway, they  increase the likelihood of radicalisation and, in their ultimate consequence, the plotting of terrorist acts against Norway.

If a Quran is burned in Norway this year, its legal system will certainly be put to the test to determine what is legally permissible, and what is not.