EER hosted its eleventh webinar to look at the situation in Sweden after several days of rioting in Sweden in response to the announcement by Danish-Swedish politician Rasmus Paludan, leader of the far-Right Stram Kurs (Hard Line) movement, that he was undertaking a Qur’an burning “tour” during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Swedish arrested more than forty people after violence spread across five Swedish cities during the Easter holiday. Twenty-six policemen and fourteen other citizens were injured in the melee, and more than twenty vehicles were destroyed.
This specific issue is not a new one, and it raised the long-running problem in Western societies of the clash between free speech and religious sensitivities, interlinked with other issues like rising fortune of far-Right forces in Scandinavia. To examine this issue, and potential mitigating strategies to find societal peace among what are now very diverse populations, EER called on an expert panel:
Tahir Abbas: a professor of radicalization studies at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs (ISGA) in The Hague, within Leiden University
Gabriel Sjöblom-Fodor: a researcher specialising in the study of religious community and countering violent extremism at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE).
Dr. Tahir Abbas began by saying that “the question may be more framed as whether these actions [the burning of Qur’ans] are provocative, invoking the reaction which it seeks which confirms the prejudice that Muslims are reactionary and dangerous … The issue here about the question of whether this is provocative, rather than an exercise in free speech is very valid here.” Abbas says that the roots of the violent reaction to the burning of the Muslim Holy Book are in the “high degrees of exclusion and marginalization” that attends Muslim life in Sweden, which makes them “vulnerable to this kind of exposure”. The reaction, he says, is not just to blasphemy but is a response to the “cumulative pressures” of being “made to feel excluded”, and to the “hyper-normalization of Islamophobia”, which operates “under the cover of free speech”. Abbas also puts emphasis on neoliberalism creating inequality as a factor in creating these sociological conditions.
Gabriel Sjöblom-Fodor said that the Qur’an burnings were experienced by Muslims in Sweden, who are recent immigrants or the children of immigrants, as adding “insult to injury” and they were particularly aggrieved by the police presence that protected the Paludan protest: it “feels like a provocation from the state, which it isn’t,” says Sjöblom-Fodor, but “many don’t really understand how society works” because of the social segregation and other things. It is interpreted as the state “making a manifestation against the Muslims. It’s obviously not correct, but it was interpreted that way.” Another issue is that the areas where Muslims live tend to have higher crime rates and other issues of social disorder, says Sjöblom-Fodor, which made people there resentful that the police could show up to protect the free expression of an agitator like Paludan, but were absent when needed to protect them from the predations of their neighbours. This all fed into the Muslim community’s “strange interpretation” of the events, says Sjöblom-Fodor.
An Unavoidable Clash
For Sweden, some of these problems are inevitable. As Sjöblom-Fodor explains, in 1930, Muslims represented thirty-two individuals in Sweden, out of a population of six million, a percentage that can barely be calculated. Now, there are 700,000 Muslims out of ten million Swedes, seven percent of the total, a large proportion of whom arrived in the last two decades. This is a rapid demographic change: “obviously there have been issues accommodating that”. There are also factors are who and how this Muslim community came to Sweden. The first Muslim settlers in Sweden were working class and came as guest workers; it was not imagined they would stay. But they did. And unlike their ethnic Swedish counterparts, they did not rise so far up the socio-economic ladder, so they never moved out of the workers’ accommodations they were in and formed into what Sjöblom-Fodor describes as “enclaves”. This has second order effects, such as poorer-quality schools and denser populations. So, when something like the Qur’an burning comes about, it is occurring atop this sense of being put-upon and all the resentments that stokes.
Both speakers agreed that these issues are historic in nature, and the flashpoint of this proposed act by Paludan merely illuminated a lot of pent up issues. On the subject of history, Sjöblom-Fodor says that are issues about Muslims interpreting “social and cultural norms”: what appears hostile—to both sides—are nothing of the kind; they are just misunderstandings. A key issue is religion, since the Scandinavian countries are among the most irreligious on earth and society is deeply secular, so the visible signs of Muslim piety provoke suspicion—not antagonism, per se, but wariness. And Muslims experience this as a slight, contributing to the feeling they are not wanted. More broadly, while Swedes and other Scandinavians see their strict public secularism as a neutral posture, to Muslims it is experienced as an affront. There is no easy way to navigate this.
Islamic State and Other Irritants
The surge of the Islamic State (ISIS) was agreed by both speakers to have exacerbated social tensions. In just December 2010, Sweden suffered two Islamist terrorist attacks: a suicide bombing in downtown Stockholm and a plot to murder the staff of Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper at the centre of the infamous 2005 cartoons controversy. And 300 Swedish Muslims went to join ISIS. This left Swedish Muslims feeling “under siege”, as Abbas put it, and this feeling had a grain of truth to it since the wider Swedish community looked on this minority population somewhat askance, wondering about its level of sympathy for the jihadists.
Questioned directly about whether Muslim concepts of blasphemy are operative in the violent responses to Qur’an burnings, even proposed burnings that never happen, Abbas says that it is more a reflection of a “range of accumulated grievances”: bad schools and policing, “hostile media,” and so forth, which creates an environment conducive to radicalization. Indeed, says Abbas, “more Islam” is likely the solution, to educate believers in the true nature of their faith and its contributions to civilisation. Sjöblom-Fodor agrees, saying: “It’s the wear and tear: many small things add up.” Abbas adds that the violent reaction comes after a “tipping point” and is the “only real language that they can work through … to react to wider problems and institutional exclusion. It’s an accumulation of so many factors projected through their own perhaps misunderstanding of religion. … There are some inequities. Muslims don’t have recourse to the law in the same way you would expect for everybody else because there are some discriminatory practices.”
That said, Abbas says that this should not be generalized too far because the rioters are a “criminal element” of “angry young men,” partly performing an “expressive masculinity,” but “the few” get all the attention. Sjöblom-Fodor reinforces this view, noting that moderate imams tell people not to go out because the best way to counter Paludan is to ignore him and not give him the reaction he wants.
In the question and answer periods, the panellists covered the issues of inequality and how it contributes to the rise of the far-Right, globalization, nationalism, immigration, religious education, Turkey’s role, and more.