Just when it seems the debate about free speech and religious sanctities has subsided, it erupts again. Tensions have risen in Sweden recently after the far-Right, anti-immigration, and anti-Islam Stram Kurs (Hard Line) movement, led by the 40-year-old founder of the movement, Rasmus Paludan, obtained permission to hold a rally where there was to be a Qur’an burning, and in response there were three days of rioting across five cities over the Easter period, leading to the arrest of forty people. Since 21 April, twenty-six policemen and fourteen other Swedish citizens have been injured and more than twenty vehicles have been destroyed in cities such as Malmö, Orebro, and the capital, Stockholm.
The activity of the Stram Kurs movement has also sparked an international reaction. The Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in a statement that it had summoned the Chargé d’Affairs of the Kingdom of Sweden in Baghdad and informed him of the Iraqi government’s displeasure. Iraq is dominated by Iran, and the Iranian government itself summoned the Swedish representative in Tehran. Governments of other Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, repeated the process, issuing diplomatic protests to Swedish officials.
The modern history of the far-Right in Sweden goes back to 1988, when the Sweden Democrats (SD) was established, a party presenting itself on issues of social conservatism and immigration restrictionism. The SD has its roots in Swedish fascism and white nationalism, but it has in recent years gone through a “detoxification” process and now officially rejects both. Nonetheless, Nordic Studies scholar Benjamin R. Teitelbaum continues to label the SD as a “radical nationalist” party, and the sociologist Jens Rygren describes them as racist, populist, and xenophobic.
Stram Kurs was founded as a separate party in July 2017 by Rasmus Paludan, who is Danish by origin, and it is has become the standard-bearer of the far-Right in Sweden as the SD has become more a mainstream Right-wing party. Paludan announced the founding of the party during a speech at a demonstration organized by the “Stop Islamization of Denmark” in Roskilde. The party agenda includes openly far-Right positions—such as introducing regulations on the practice of Islam, stopping migration from non-Western countries, and to deporting Muslims—alongside rallying around causes, such as protecting the cartoonists of Jyllands-Posten and Jews from Muslim extremists, which have wider appeal.
The factors behind the rise of the far-Right groups in Western Europe, and their focus on Islam, are numerous. One element is globalization, which has left large sections of many European countries deeply dissatisfied: what was supposed to bring widespread prosperity has instead brought a decline in industrial capacity, lower economic growth rates, increased debt, the movement of capital and investments abroad, and an influx of migrants that has created frictions that for some amount to a national identity crisis. The far-Right parties that wish for a return to a national, rather than global, sense of identity are able to attract more support than they might because all of the hegemonic parties in Europe take the opposite view, leaving the far-Right as the only outlet for protest votes. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic disruptions has exacerbated these problems. Media and social media platforms have played their role in disseminating far-Right ideas and allowing the connectivity of activists that want to further them. All of this combined has led to a spread of what some call “Islamophobia”: stereotyping of Muslim migrants, promoting the idea that they are not integrated into Western societies, and that they constitute hotbeds of terrorism and radicalization.
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 their faith, especially during Ramadan, the month when Muslim tradition says the angel Gabriel started revealing the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad. 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.
The conflict between free expression and religious sensitivities is an old one, dating to the beginnings of liberalism in the seventeenth century, and the “absolutist” view of free expression has by no means always been the dominant view in Europe. Recognition that there might have to be some limits on speech was spelled out by none other than Montesquieu (1689-1755), one of the prime movers of the Enlightenment, who wrote his book, The Spirit of Laws (1748), “a man who goes into a public market-place to incite [people] to revolt incurs the guilt of high treason, because the words are joined to the action, and partake of its nature. It is not the words that are punished, but an action in which words are employed.” In the modern West, what Montesquieu describes would fall under the “incitement” laws, which limit speech in very specific circumstances where words directly induce criminal behaviour. Muslims would argue this is exactly what Stram Kurs is doing when it burns the Qur’an; the party—and Western advocates of free speech—would say that those who riot in response to the speech are the criminals. Finding a way to manage these two views and secure societal peace remains a challenge across the West.