Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 502, 20 April 2022

Sweden: Riots erupt after far-right group plans rally to burn Quran
Sourina Bej

In the news
On 15 April, a riot broke out in Malmo, Sweden after 300 people gathered to protest a planned rally to burn Quran. The protest took a violent turn after several protestors pelted stones at police officers and the casualties included bullet injuries of three civilians and stone-pelting injuries of at least two officers. The national police chief in Sweden, Anders Thornberg, said in a press brief that “he had never seen such violent riots following Sunday’s clashes in Norrkoping.” 

On 14 April, Rasmus Paludan, the Danish far-right politician had planned to burn Quran in various Swedish cities. And the riot was a result of a direct clash between the supporters of his Stram Kurs party and the demonstrators against anti-Islam activities. The riot spread over the Easter holidays and was reported in the towns of Norrkoping, Linkoping, Stockholm, Orebro and Landskrona. While the violence left 12 police officers injured and four police vehicles on fire in the Orebo, equal destruction of public property was reported in Landskrona and Malmo.

On 17 April, the interior and justice minister Morgan Johansson of the Social Democrats condemned the violence and said: “those who attack the police are criminal perpetrators of violence.” He equally said about Paludan that “even fools have freedom of speech.”  

Issues at large
First, the rise of Ramus Paludan. A Danish lawyer with Swedish citizenship, Paludan ascended the Swedish political theatre in 2017 when he set up the Stram Kurs party. Stram Kurs has since nurtured the anti-immigration sentiment in Sweden singling out the Muslim communities since the 2015 refugee influx. In 2019, Paludan was sentenced to 14 days of conditional imprisonment for delivering a racist speech. In Denmark, he garnered political support by inching closer to a power-sharing in the parliament in the last election with a policy to deport 300,000 Muslims. Prior to the riot in Sweden, Paludan was denied permission to hold a meeting about “Islamization in the Nordic countries,” yet his mere presence and provocative hate speech incites both counters and supporters. 

Second, the rise of the political right in Sweden. In the 2018 Riksdag election, the Sweden Democrats, the right-wing political party became the third-largest in Sweden. Cutting through the vote margin of the ruling centrist Social Democrats, the Sweden Democrats shifted the political climate by testing Sweden’s exceptional social welfare programmes for the refugees. Sweden Democrats which had their roots in Neo-Nazism have been able to shed their past by rooting against street crimes that peaked in 2015. As the Swedish society struggled to integrate the Muslims from Syria and Afghanistan, many Swedes also came to view them as pressure on public finances. In 2018, when the unemployment rate reached 3.8 per cent and gun violence was ten times more, many supported the Sweden Democrats who viewed refugees as a “state-financed sloth.” 

Third, the spectrum of freedom of expression. Paludan’s call to burn the Quran however inciteful it may be has been dubbed by the justice minister as a fool’s right to express. A regional trend in mainstream media such as Charlie Hebdo to satire and draw caricatures of religious symbols has long tattled the contours of secularism. Individual religious rights such as wearing a hijab could simultaneously be symbols of oppression and choice but in a secular environment such as in France, it stands banned. With Paludan, a similar dichotomous regional trend to defend the freedom to express within divided societies could be observed.   

In perspective 
First, the riot comes amid ambiguity on the profile of the demonstrators and the unpreparedness of the police force. Even with loud announcements from Paludan and history of riots since 2010 in Sweden, the police grappled with the spread and spectacle of the destruction. Second, the riot also marked a failure of the state in its touted integration policy which has not created the social space for cultural exchanges and acceptance in due course. It proves to be an example of how multicultural societies faced with monolithic administrative systems behave. Paludan is a representation of one such divisive society.   

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