European Eye on Radicalization
Outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, on 21 January, the Danish politician Rasmus Paludan, who leads the far-Right Stram Kurs (Hard Line) party, burned a copy of the Qur’an during a protest against “Islamization” and immigration. This is the latest in a series of such events, which plays on tensions within Sweden, but this event has been most important in the impact it has had on Sweden’s diplomatic relations with Turkey as part of Sweden’s bid for NATO membership.
In April 2022, Paludan threatened to burn a Qur’an in Malmö, a restive town in southern Sweden with a foreign-origin majority, as part of a “tour” of similar events. Paludan’s attempt was forcibly shut down by angry Muslims and the violence spread to rioting in five cities across Sweden, including Malmö itself, Örebro in the centre-south, and the capital, Stockholm, in the eastern-south. The riots wounded 399 people and destroyed twenty vehicles. 47 people have so far been sentenced for crimes relating to this violence.
Writing for EER at the time, Gabriel Sjöblom-Fodor, a researcher on countering violent extremism at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), explained the complicated backstory to this event. One factor Sjöblom-Fodor identifies is the spread of Islamist ideas that have displaced traditional understandings of Islam where “the … response—especially in situations where Muslims live as a minority—is to keep cool in the face of provocations, not react to them”. This Islamist sense of “blasphemy” clashes sharply with Swedish doctrines of free speech, and behind this are tensions related to the very specific applications of multiculturalism in Sweden since the arrival of Muslim immigrants, mostly over the last twenty years.
On the other hand, Tahir Abbas, professor of radicalization studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, considered in one of the EER webinars that the issue here about the question of whether this is provocative rather than an exercise of free speech. Abbas stressed that the roots of the Muslim 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”.
Burning of Qur’ans—and the violent reaction—has become a favoured way of far-Right activists “proving” their argument by showing the rejection of the Muslim community for perhaps the key tenet of Western societies, namely free expression. From an Islamic perspective, the Qur’an is the eternal word of God and desecrating it is a grave insult to the Muslim’s faith. Muslims in Sweden have demanded that the government amendment of basic laws of Sweden to ban insults to religion, believing that the ridicule of God and his messenger are outside the limits of free speech. In Sweden, as in the rest of Europe, such a demand is viewed as illegitimate by most of the population, who have been raised in secular societies, where the state cannot impose limits on free speech to protect the feelings of believers.
During the events last year, the governments of Muslim-majority countries reacted fiercely against Sweden. This time around the most prominent such voice has been Turkey, which tried to prevent Paludan holding his event outside its Embassy in Sweden, and reacted angrily when the Swedish government did not comply. “The burning of the Holy Qur’an in Stockholm is a clear crime of hatred and humanity,” said Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman for Turkey’s Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We vehemently condemn this. Allowing this action despite all our warnings is encouraging hate crimes and Islamophobia. The attack on sacred values is not freedom but modern barbarism” [italics added]. The Turkish Foreign Ministry piled on with a statement saying: “Permitting this anti-Islam act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values, under the guise of freedom of expression is completely unacceptable” [italics added].
Swedish government finds itself facing two contradictory trends, the first asking for protecting and respecting the Muslims religious sacred symbols, and the second one urging the government to protect the right of free speech even though at the expense of abusing others religions and feelings. The Swedish state considers this as an immoral act that should be denounced but not legally banned. The Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson denounced what he described as a “very disrespectful act”, the day after a copy of the Qur’an was burned during a demonstration in Stockholm, and expressed his “sympathy” with Muslims after a wave of condemnations in the Islamic world. This raises the question of whether this sympathy is sufficient to remedy the offending of Muslim community and the abuse of sacred Islamic symbols.
Western provocateurs desecrate the Qur’an and draw cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad because they can be sure of an angry response. On one hand this creates scenes that further the far-Right narrative that Muslims are antagonistic to Western liberal values, and in the other hand it generates more feelings for the Muslim community of being excluded, marginalized, and unprotected. It remains a tough equation for secular western regimes to ensure the protection of Islamic sacred symbols in the face of growing far-right movements that use the umbrella of free speech to attack Muslims.