Tahir Abbas, Professor of Radicalisation Studies at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University in The Hague, the Netherlands.
In mid-April, during the Islamic month of Ramadan, three days of counter-protests took place in Norrköping, Linköping, Landskrona, Rebro, Malmö, and Stockholm, leading to the arrest of dozens of individuals. One school was set on fire, and twenty police vehicles were either damaged or destroyed. At the centre of these events are the images of angry Muslim youth pelting police cars and shouting Arabic slogans. A deeper probe into the heart of this story reveals something far more sinister: an agent provocateur in the form of a certain Danish-Swedish individual with a clear agenda.
Rasmus Paludan, leader of the far-Right Stram Kurs (Hard Line) party, has been conducting a campaign of burning copies of the Qur’an in urban areas with large Muslim populations under the protection of the police. His party has one mandate, which is to remove both Islam and Muslims from Denmark. Under Swedish free speech law, he continues to carry out these provocative acts, arguably with the sole purpose of eliciting a reaction from angry young local Muslim residents, which often escalates, and the combined frustration that these Nordic Muslims have due to their marginalized state in society can often lead to heavy clashes with the police. This thereby legitimizes the argument that Muslims are intolerant, reject free speech, do not respect the laws of the country, and are violent or aggressive.
Attempting to make ground in Sweden, taking advantage of his newly acquired citizenship, Paludan is building on growing Right-wing sentiment in society that has appeared in light of the general trend of economic neoliberalism (free-market policies combined with small government) that has increasingly engulfed Nordic economies. This is a combination with an immigration and asylum system that granted thousands of Muslims homes in Sweden, where they ended up in residentially cut-off “ghettos” that are often presented as no-go areas, ridden with crime, that show extreme intolerance towards the non-Muslim Swedish majority, and a sense that groups living there have parallel lives to the rest of “us”. The resultant impact of inequality has led to the general impression among disaffected majority groups that their opportunities have been taken away due to a progressive policy towards immigrants and minorities. Populist parties have taken advantage of this misinformed resentment for political gain.
In this heady mix, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are facing demanding questions about integration policy. What is regarded as traditionally non-violent and socially equal Scandinavian economies are not what they used to be. The underlying problems of inequality are now being exposed as these nations embrace further neoliberal policies concerning the economy and society. Liberalization has added to fragmentation. In this context, Sweden, a country that until a few decades ago had little immigration, has seen a spate of Qur’an burnings that have been occurring across both Denmark and Norway in recent years. The “ethic Danes” ideals of Paludan’s party allude to a racialized nationalism that borders on ethnic cleansing.
This pattern has been seen before in history and the natural outcome is highly destructive for societies—ethnic nationalism often ends in calamitous and bloody failures. While the playbook of inequality, division, authoritarianism, polarization, populism, and ultimately fascism in places can be seen making strides across Europe at present, the counter-protests now presented as “riots” in Sweden will ferment fear among members of society who are less able to critically assess the narrative. As a result of an open asylum policy, immigration to these countries is facing a backlash, but the problem is that integration is not working, and with a hostile media and a populist political class, Muslims are not getting the proper attention they need and deserve, and political parties take full advantage.
The case under review here might indicate that what has recently happened in Sweden is an isolated situation that relates to racist individuals and their political ambitions, entirely peripheral to the wider workings of society. That is, it would be wrong to suggest that there is a fundamentally far more racist ideology that exists among members of the countries that are being awoken by these developments such that there is a considerable social and political threat in play. But there have been rising far-Right movements and parties across Scandinavia for some time now, even if these ‘events’ are relatively few and far between. The issue is that they exist at all. Two decades ago, such scenes would have been met with incredulous horror among both Scandinavian Muslim minorities and ethnic majorities. It has not been two decades since the Danish cartoons affair, which reflected ongoing issues throughout the mid-2000s amid the Iraq war and growing Right-wing popular sentiment in Europe. Underlying the approach taken is that there are aspects of Islamophobia in relations to structural and cultural patterns of racism, exclusion, and disadvantage that have become highly normalized to such an extent that they are not questioned at all.
This reflects the ongoing marginalization, exclusion and racism faced by the vast majority of Muslims in Europe in general, with widening economic inequalities leading to political polarization and ultimately radicalization of not just the far-right, whose hostilities are about the need to preserve the essential purity of the nation, but also younger Muslims at the margins of society, not through Islamist groups per se. Some are susceptible to the radicalizing narrative because Islamophobia is real, “you’re not wanted as a Muslim in your country” and that “joining our organization offers something of a complete solution for your existential spiritual, philosophical, and material needs and wants”. In the same way, some of the non-Muslim majority of Swedes are swayed by the idea that their national heritage faces dilution at the hands of immigrants and minorities. The important point to note here is that the number of young Muslims mobilising their real-world frustrations into fanatical jihadism remains very limited. Important, too, is the fact that numerous anti-Paludan mobilizations have emerged in Sweden in response to his actions, including the charismatic “Free Jazz Against Paludan” musicians, who drown out Paludan’s attempts to be heard, much to his annoyance, but much to the delight of the vast majority of all Swedes.
The reality is that these Nordic countries have not prepared the groundwork to produce an effective set of integration policies and practices that lead to equal opportunities and equal outcomes for minorities and immigrants. There are practices and outcomes in these countries that sustain a highly racialized hierarchical social order that is impenetrable in the main to newcomers. Social mobility for minorities in light of neoliberalism and globalisation remains highly racialized and exclusive, perpetrating existing modes of power, domination, and subordination of others. The hyper-normalization of the cycle of Islamophobia and radicalization has seen little retreat, despite the outset of a global pandemic and a war raging in Europe.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.