Sweden: Threats of burning the Quran spark anger internationally

After a far-right party leader threatened to tour the country burning copies of the Quran, riots spread through different Swedish cities for several days in late April.

Rasmus Paludan, Danish-Swedish politician and leader of the far-right, anti-immigration and anti-Muslim Stram Kurs (Hard Line) party, held a demonstration that included burning a copy of the Quran in the southern Swedish city of Linkoping on April 14, with the permission of local authorities [1]. He also announced that his party would organize rallies in cities with large Muslim populations to burn copies of the Quran during the month of Ramadan [2].

Muslim counter-protesters took to the streets against Stram Kurs’s rallies, holding banners that read “Stop the burning of the Holy Quran” and “Stop insulting Muslims” [3]. Demonstrations escalated into riots, and violent clashes between the police and the protesters spread from Linkoping and Orebro to Norrkoping, Landskrona, Malmo, and Stockholm. The Swedish police justified the local authorities’ decision to authorize such rallies by invoking the country’s freedom of speech laws [4].

Over 40 people were injured after several days of violence [5]. According to the police reports, 26 police officers and 14 members of the public were wounded, and more than 20 vehicles – including police cars and a bus – were damaged or destroyed [6]. According to these reports, over 200 people were involved in acts of violence, and dozens were arrested. In Norrkoping, three people were “arrested on suspicion of committing criminal acts” [7]. Police called for more resources to deal with the violence, and stated that networks of criminal groups known to the Sweden’s security service were involved [8].

In a statement posted by Hard Line on Facebook on April 17, Paludan called off the rallies because Swedish authorities had “shown that they are completely incapable of protecting themselves and me. […] If I was seriously injured or killed due to the inadequacy of the police authority, then it would be very sad for Swedes, Danes and other northerners” [9]. Nonetheless, during the last weeks Paludan has continued to carry out Islamophobic actions both in Sweden and Denmark – including the burning of the Quran in front of mosques, in occasions while wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest –, and publicize them through videos in his party’s Facebook page.

The amplitude of April’s clashes was unprecedented in Swedish recent history. The national police chief, Anders Thornberg, said he had never seen such violent riots [10]. However, this is not the first time that violence erupts against Paludan and Stram Kurs’ plans to burn the Quran. In 2020, protests sparked after some supporters of Paludan burned a Quran in the city of Malmo, set cars on fire, and damaged shop fronts [11]. Shortly afterwards, Paludan was expelled from Sweden for two years. He was also banned from Belgium for a year, and was deported from France after suggesting to burn the Islam’s holy book in these countries. Paludan has justified his Islamophobic acts, such as wrapping copies of the Quran in bacon, as a tribute to free speech [12]. He has performed similar Islamophobic actions in Denmark, where he served jail sentences in 2019 and 2020, on charges of racism and defamation. 

Nonetheless, Paludan represented the Stram Kurs party in the 2019 Danish general elections. The party received 1.8% of the vote, and therefore failed to win a single seat. For this reason, he turned his attention to neighboring Sweden, where he plans to run for the general elections on September 11, 2022. At the time of this writing, he reportedly does not have the necessary number of signatures to secure his candidature [13]. Some analysts have highlighted, however, that the recent unrest may present the political opportunity he is looking for. Anders Widfeldt, a Swedish lecturer in politics at the University of Aberdeen (Scotland), told Deutsche Welle: “This is exactly the kind of publicity and violent reaction that Paludan wants so that he can point to it and say: ‘This shows what kind of society Sweden has created by being so lax on immigration” [14]. 

Overall, according to experts, the visibility of extremists like Paludan reflects the broader trend of hardening attitudes towards immigrants in both Denmark and Sweden since the refugee crisis of 2015 [15].

Local, national and international reactions

Local Muslims and politicians have shown their frustration towards both the anti-Muslim campaign that provoked the riots in several cities and its justification on the grounds of freedom of speech.

For the former chairman of the Muslim Swedish Youth Organization, Rashid Musa, the Quran burning is a part of ongoing actions to de-humanize minority groups in general and Muslims in particular. Mahmoud Khalfi, the imam and director at the Stockholm Central Mosque, said that he personally witnessed a Quran burning in Skarholmen last December. “I remember how hurtful it was,” he said, adding that many Muslims had “called and told us how hurtful and provocative it was to burn the holy Quran” [16]. 

Similarly, the deputy chair of the Municipal Council of Vernamo, Azra Muranovic, stated that invoking freedom of speech to burn copies of the Quran is problematic, and that it should be considered as “hate speech” [17]. The mayor of Norrkoping, Anna Thorn, said during a press conference that “under these circumstances, the police should not grant permits for more public gatherings” [18]. 

At the national level, the Swedish Prime Minister, Magdalena Andersson, condemned the unrest. “I will make it very clear: those attacking the Swedish police, attack the Swedish democratic society. The perpetrators must be arrested, prosecuted and serve a sentence in prison,” she stated in a letter to the Aftonbladet newspaper [19]. Andersson declared being disgusted by Paludan’s views, but stressed that it is “unacceptable, irresponsible and illegal” to respond to them with violence. The Minister of Justice and of Interior, Morgan Johansson, also stressed the importance of protecting the country’s freedoms. He stated: “We are living in a democracy with far-reaching freedoms of speech and the press, and we should be very proud of that,” although he admitted that those freedoms were being used by a “Danish extremist” to foster “hate, division and violence,” which he despised [20]. In an interview with Aftonbladet, he called Paludan a “right-wing extremist fool, whose only goal is to drive violence and divisions” [21].

At the international level, several Muslim countries have condemned the Islamophobic act that sparked the riots. Iraq’s Minister of Foreign Affairs summoned the Chargé d’Affairs of Sweden in Baghdad, Hakan Roth [22]. He warned that the incident could have “serious repercussions” on “relations between Sweden and Muslims in general, Muslim and Arab countries, and Muslim communities in Europe” [23]. In Iran, a demonstration was held outside the Swedish embassy in Tehran. 

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry denounced “hesitation to prevent provocative and Islamophobic acts […] under the cover of freedom of expression,” while Jordan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the actions of Hard Line “contradict all religious values and principles, human rights principles and basic freedoms, fuel feelings of hatred and violence, and threaten peaceful coexistence” [24]. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt condemned the “intentional abuse” and “acts of desecration” against the holy Quran by right-wing “Swedish extremists […] that incite against immigrants in general and Muslims in particular” [25]. The United Arab Emirates’ adviser to the president, Anwar Gargash, also rejected in a tweet the “hatred” and “intolerance” against Islam [26].

Along the same line, The Muslim World League also condemned “the absurd and shameful act carried out by some extremists in Sweden” [27]. In turn, the High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), Mr. Miguel Moratinos, issued a press statement expressing his “unequivocal condemnation” of the actions of “the leader of the far-right extremist group Straus Kurs” [28]. The High Representative noted that “such vile acts” aimed “at offending Muslims” and contradict the UN General Assembly resolution on “Combatting intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination, incitement to violence against persons based on religion or belief”. He also called on “religious leaders across the faith spectrum to renew their denunciation of all forms of violence based on religion or belief”.

European leaders, on the other hand, have largely remained silent in relation to both the recent riots and the far-right’s Islamophobic actions in Sweden.

By Ada Mullol

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