Summary: Comments on a current debate on free speech in Sweden, following burnings of the Qur’an – Editors
In 2017, a new neo-Nazi party called Stram Kurs was formed in Denmark. The main idea propagated by representatives of Stram Kurs was that Muslims are inherently violent people, that Islam should be banned from Denmark, and that all non-Westerners should immediately be deported. Little more than a year ago, the extreme far right-wing Danish lawyer Rasmus Paludan, founder of the neo-Nazi party Stram Kurs in Denmark, decided to travel to Sweden to build support for a Swedish section of Stram Kurs. His tactic was to go to impoverished suburbs populated with a large group of Muslims and provoke those by burning the Qur’an. Paludan’s goal was to start a violent response, but when asked why he did this, he hid his real aim and answered in a seemingly well-rehearsed way that he was critical of Islam and that it was his right, according to the laws regulating free speech, to express his criticism by burning the Qur’an.
Last spring, when Paludan went on his tour, he managed to provoke a couple of violent protests that went out of control. Cars were burnt, houses destroyed, and it was even close to losing lives. No rally in Sweden has turned as violent as those since the anti-EU protest in Gothenburg in 2001. However, in the investigations following Paludan’s tour, much responsibility has been put on the police forces present. According to some reports, the police were not prepared for the deep anger from the Muslim community and acted in a way that escalated rather than de-escalated the situation.
A couple of months later, another – totally different – expression of freedom of speech sparked debate. A Swedish-Kurdish solidarity committee called the Committee in Defense of Rojava hung up a human-sized doll representing Erdoğan on a lamppost. They wanted to express criticism of Erdoğan as an authoritarian dictator. This occurred when the Swedish government negotiated with Erdoğan about membership in NATO. Erdoğan felt attacked by the protests of the Committee in Defense of Rojava, started a Twitter war with them, and refused to continue the NATO negotiations. Now, one could suddenly read conservative spokespersons, who previously backed Paludan’s right to free speech, saying things like, “Perhaps not all forms of free speech should be allowed.”
And now, this summer, the debate intensified again, as another person has been going on a tour burning the Qur’an. This time, the person burning the Qur’an is Salwan Momika. Usually, he has decided on the place to burn the Qur’an outside different Mosques. Momika is from a Christian minority in Iraq. He came to Sweden in 2019 after having fought against ISIS. There, he was the leader of a militia backed by Iran. Momika does not speak English or Swedish, but from reading translations of what he is saying, he says that he hates Islam and wants to join the Sweden Democrats (the xenophobic right-wing party in Sweden, on which support the current conservative government is dependent upon) to continue the fight against Islam.
In Sweden, there is a law that prohibits hate speech. All the time the Qur’an has been burnt, people report it as a violation of the law that bans hate speech. Still, the courts have found that burning a religious text does not fall under hate speech. The essence of what they conclude is that the current laws are formulated so that burning a sacred text is not an act that directly hits on other people but on ideas; therefore, it falls under what is allowed under the right to free speech.
Nonetheless, what so many people who say that they support freedom of speech miss is that when Paludan is burning the Quran, two acts coalesce the moment he lights the match. On the one hand, there is an act of expressing critique of a religion. On the other hand, there is an expression of the thought that people with brown or Black skin are less worthy than white people.
Of course, everyone watching it quickly understands that Paludan has not read a single sentence of the Qur’an. He is not interested in having a critical dialogue on aspects of the Qur’an. Instead, he thinks is that Muslims, brown people, Black people, Jews, etc., should be deported immediately. In that sense, Paludan violates the thought that no individual or group of people is more valuable than another.
It is deeply problematic how several intellectuals in Sweden who have engaged in the debate have not been able to recognize this “hidden act” by Paludan. Because when intellectuals cannot see nor recognize that his act is more than “just criticism of a religious idea,” they make the racism of his action invisible. And in that way, it contributes to legitimizing racism because what is essentially happening is that right in front of them, racism is shouted out. Still, they can neither see it nor hear it, and they do not recognize it. But sure, people of color feel it, that the attack on them is not recognized as something to care about.
Hence, Paludan has found a way to express a racist idea, hidden under a claim of freedom of expression. One must be able to separate these two acts to grasp what is happening.
Yet, it should not be forgotten that last spring, the protesters who threw rocks and Molotov cocktails were also sparked by conservative religious leaders who urged people to protest Paludan violently. These people should also be criticized. But the analysis cannot stop there. The dominant white community in Sweden must recognize that the Black and brown minorities in Sweden are suffering from structural discrimination that is not recognized as such. When people like Paludan enter and provoke communities, it becomes like the drop that makes the cup run over, thereupon violent protests, like the ones we saw last spring, will occur again. Thus, the task of the dominant community in Sweden is to make sure that the minorities do not doubt for a second that the whites have their back. Hence, in this case, whites need to show that they earn the trust of minorities.