Gabriel Sjöblom-Fodor, a researcher specialising in the study of religious community work and countering violent extremism at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE)
Sweden recently saw a series of very violent riots across a number of cities and towns in response to the desecration of the Qur’an by a minor Danish political figure of the far-Right, Rasmus Palduan, who has made such provocations against Muslims his political signature. His idea and method of choice has been to carry out such acts in areas with high Muslim populations in order to provoke violent responses from Muslims—something he, unfortunately, often succeeds at—in order to prove a point that Muslims cannot live in Western lands.
On the surface, the violent responses we have seen appear to be just what he desired: an unacceptable, violent Muslim response to the desecration of the Qur’an. This is also how it has been interpreted by parts of the political and cultural establishment, in terms of ultimately a fundamental “cultural conflict” between Muslim and Western concepts of liberty and freedom of speech. While this might appear to be a valid interpretation, the underlying causes are more complex.
The Disputed Multicultural Dilemma: Freedom of Speech versus Religious Sensitivities
The riots have reinvigorated one of the most disputed questions of our time in European politics in relations to religious minorities, one which often evokes strong emotions, namely that of freedom of speech versus religious sentiments and sensitivities, Muslim sentiments and sensitivities in particular. This is a flashpoint that has been seen time and again since the Rushdie affair in 1989, through the mayhem over the Jyllands-Posten caricatures in 2005 and the massacre of the staff of Charlie Hebdo in 2015. The majority view in Europe is that the right to free speech, in this case blasphemy, weighs higher than religious sentiments, and that those offended need to learn to live with it.
While the West has largely secularized, with religion’s role in governance largely eliminated, becoming a private and marginal phenomenon, and public discourse is filled with criticism of “organised religion” for its historical abuses of power and current hypocrisies, this is not the case in much of the Islamic world. In the Muslim world, the faith remains a vibrant, revered presence in daily life, and Islamic teachings—especially against blasphemy and kufr (unbelief)—are respected and often upheld by the government. In most Muslim-majority countries, critique of religious teachings and beliefs remains highly sensitive for historical, political, and social reasons. The collision between these two outlooks has given rise to much intra-Muslim debate, as well as problematic situations where these clashes of values become more physical confrontations between people.
From a strict theological point, the traditional Islamic response—especially in situations where Muslims live as a minority—is to keep cool in the face of provocations, not react to them, and turn away. Traditional and moderate Muslim scholars have stated across the centuries, and also in our own times, repeatedly, that believers should not bother with responding to, or even caring about, provocations, since they are typically intended to incite responses to make the faith and its adherents appear in a negative light. Riots, terrorism, or other forms of anti-social behaviour also violate the principle of aqd ul aman, or “security covenant”, which Muslims, from a canonical law perspective, are obliged to follow as minorities in non-Muslim lands: Muslims are supposed to live according to local laws, customs, and systems. And lastly, if someone feels that they cannot function in a non-Muslim land and that the lifestyle and norms of the society in which they live is too great an assault on their own beliefs, Muslim scholars traditionally advocated for resettlement to a Muslim land, as a last measure to avoid conflict. These calls have unfortunately in some cases gone unheeded and emotional outbursts of anger, sometimes turning very destructive, have followed.
The ‘Clash of Civilisations’ Narrative
A growing number of voices in the West, not least in Sweden, have concluded that Muslim religiosity and sensitivities stand in disharmony with aspects of Western society. This has been driven in part by more assertive contemporary calls from Muslim groups towards the secular majorities to respect their beliefs and practices, including controversial aspects of these. While it is fully within the boundaries of a democracy and pluralism to have even controversial beliefs, some of these calls have been to limit freedom of speech and legally ban what Muslims deem offensive. The concern about this began on the political Right, but is gaining more and more ground across the spectrum.
To put this in perspective, it is important to point out that Sweden is ranked as one of the most secular and liberal countries in the world, where religion and religious sensitivities are typically regarded as antiquated. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, under the leadership of the Social Democrats, Swedish society fought a fierce battle against the influence of the then-very powerful Church of Sweden and its teachings, and the eventual taming of the Church is regarded as a central part of the “founding myth” of modern Sweden.
The issue occurs in the context of rapid demographic changes in the country during the twenty-first century. The recent arrival, and growing presence, of cultural influences (as well as issues) from “foreign” Muslim religiosity have generated a new reality, to the concern of segments of society. An increasing number of Swedes have begun to articulate their discomfort with such trends and the overall changes of recent decades, which are fairly dramatic in what used to be an essentially ethnically and culturally homogenous country, with the sense of familiarity that entailed. This is reflected in the strong rise of parties such as the Sweden Democrats (SD) and the Alternative for Sweden (Alternativ för Sverige – AfS), and more general rise in support for the political Right and conservative movements.
The struggle for Muslims of living, interpreting, and re-interpreting their faith in the light of surrounding secular realities, and navigating a society which often cares little for their religious or cultural sensitivities, has created a siege mentality among segments of the Muslim population. The reality of the situation is far less important than perceptions, since it is these perceptions that drive patterns of behaviour. And for many Muslims, their lived experience, as reported in voluminous survey data, is feeling that they are exposed to discrimination, xenophobia, and being treated as second class citizens. This is compounded by social segregation, which limits contact between immigrants and Swedes, upholding a shared incomprehension: both sides are fundamentally unfamiliar with the customs, traditions, and lifeways of the other, and attempts to break this have not proven very successful. This mutual alienation has also unfortunately given opportunity to preachers of political Islam and Takfirism to spread their ideology and misinformation relatively easily.
Unfortunately, while most Muslim community leaders seek peace and understanding with non-Muslim citizens, some Muslim leaders—those who carry the burden of responsibility for spreading awareness in their communities—have little interest in fulfilling that duty, and have been among the leaders in manifesting these societal tensions in violence by drawing attention to insults or provocations that would otherwise have passed by unnoticed.
This snarl of issues—historical, ideological, demographic, and social—have accumulated, leading to a sense of victimisation on both sides. But there are other factors as well.
Anecdotes have emerged, both publicly and to this author, telling of numerous grievances, real or perceived, regarding the approach of police forces and the behaviour of individual officers in these vulnerable areas. The same sources tell of alleged frequent stop and searches, and aggressive behaviour on the part of some officers, over a longer period of time. These reports, current in the Swedish Muslim community, have, rightly or wrongly, created a sense of growing resentment in already vulnerable areas and groups towards statutory bodies. These trends were allegedly in response to calls from politicians for a “tougher line” from police in these areas to stop gang crime, drug dealing, and extremism, but instead of being pleased at the reduction of crime, the law-enforcement measures have been interpreted by some as indiscriminate bullying of the wider community.
Another significant part of the riots is that they seem to have included elements who were simply seeking a confrontation with the police and authorities. At a press conference, the police claimed to have evidence that criminal groups took advantage of the protests to vent their own anger and vengeance towards the police forces. Police also described a number of rioters as having “no agenda”: they were just people showing up for the opportunity to fight.
It would be fair to say that the riots are a combination of all the above factors, which leaves serious challenges for Swedish authorities, politicians, and civil society to tackle. With national elections being held within a few months, it remains to be seen what effect last week’s chaos will have on the formation of the next government.
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.