Conflict Alerts # 585, 26 January 2023
In the news
On 21 January, Danish far-right activist Rasmus Paludan burnt the Quran in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm as a sign of protest. Paludan was joined by 100 other protestors and was accompanied by the police. He said: “If you don’t think there should be freedom of expression, you have to live somewhere else.” On 20 January, Swedish police granted him the right to hold a demonstration in front of the embassy. Paludan led the protest propounding anti-Islam anti-immigration statements.
On the same day, the Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned the act and said: “Permitting this anti-Islam act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values, under the guise of ‘freedom of expression’ is completely unacceptable." The Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry also denounced the burning of the Quran and said: “Saudi Arabia calls for spreading the values of dialogue, tolerance, and coexistence, and rejects hatred and extremism.” The incident was also criticised by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif who said: “The garb of the freedom of expression cannot be used to hurt the religious emotions of 1.5 billion Muslims across the world. This is unacceptable.” Other Islamic countries such as Egypt, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Morocco, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Jordan also condemned the event and criticised the Swedish government for allowing the protests to go through.
Issues at large
First, a brief note on Rasmus Paludan. He is a Swedish-Danish leader of the Stram Kurs (Hard Line) Party. The Stram Kurs Party is a Danish far-right political party that received 1.8 per cent of the total votes in the 2019 Danish parliamentary elections. Paludan has previously held Quran-burning demonstrations expressing anti-Islamic and anti-immigration sentiments. The first incident was in April 2019 when he burned the Quran in Viborg, Denmark, and the second was in August 2020 in Malmö, Sweden, after which he was barred from entering Sweden for two years. The most recent one was in April 2020 when he threatened to burn the Quran which triggered counter-protests and riots in Sweden.
Second, the rise of far-right sentiments in Sweden. In the 2022 Parliamentary elections, there was an increase in the vote share of right-wing parties who formed the Government with Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson as the leader. This reflected the rising right-leaning sentiments of the people supporting a largely anti-immigration stance. Acts of Islamophobia has followed this in Sweden. The far-right Sweden Democrats are the second largest party in the parliament which advocates ideologies similar to anti-Islamic and anti-immigration sentiments. This popularity is largely attributed to the growing immigrant population in Sweden with 58 per cent of 250,000 migrants in 2017 being Muslims. By 2020, the total Muslim population was said to be more than 240,000 of the total population. The Swedish public has largely been critical of the growing numbers calling it a burden on social welfare, and a cause of the financial crisis.
Third, Sweden’s overarching freedom of expression. In all of Paludan’s demonstrations, he has been granted permission by the police to hold the demonstration saying that denying such requests violates his freedom of expression. Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom before the protest said that barring the demonstration would be “very inappropriate.” In Sweden, freedom of expression is statutory and encourages the public to express their views freely without censorship. While Sweden does prohibit hate speech, any convictions under this are always trumped by the freedom of expression. The selected interpretation of both laws provides protestors with the space to carry out such demonstrations as it is unlawful to ban anyone from protesting.
First, delay in ratifying Sweden’s NATO bid. Sweden has been at odds with Turkey for the latter to ratify its NATO membership bid. With these protests, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Turkey will not be ratifying the bid and even cancelled diplomatic visits. This stance of Turkey has put a dent in Sweden and Finland’s goal to be members of NATO before the June summit. It also calls into question the future steps that Sweden will have to take to address all of Turkey’s demands.
Second, the reaction from the rest of the world. These protests have been widely criticised by Islamic countries and the West. Many of the criticisms laid against the government call out Sweden’s overarching freedom of expression. There have been counter-protests in Turkey, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq where protestors have burned the Swedish flag and called for a ban on Swedish companies. The West has condemned the burning of the Quran with the US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price calling it “vile” and “disgusting.” With the condemnations, the West has not largely criticised the Swedish government, with the Western discourse largely concentrating on Sweden’s NATO membership but not on the act or the anti-Islamic intent behind it.