In Sweden, violence over far-right group’s anti-Muslim rallies, Koran burning

Violent protests erupted acorss many cities in Sweden after Rasmus Paludan, leader of a far-right group, burned a copy of the Islamic holy book Quran and announced several more rallies to do so

April 23, 2022 04:10 pm | Updated 04:10 pm IST

A city bus burns on a street in Malmo, Sweden, on Saturday, April 16, 2022. Unrest broke out in southern Sweden late Saturday despite police moving a rally by an anti-Islam far-right group, which was planning to burn a Koran among other things, to a new location as a preventive measure.

A city bus burns on a street in Malmo, Sweden, on Saturday, April 16, 2022. Unrest broke out in southern Sweden late Saturday despite police moving a rally by an anti-Islam far-right group, which was planning to burn a Koran among other things, to a new location as a preventive measure. | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: Several towns and cities in Sweden have been hit by violent protests that lasted for days and and left more than 40 people injured after a far-right party’s announcement that it will burn the Islamic holy book Koran in some parts of the country.

The injured included many police officers, and police vehicles were damaged during the riots, the Swedish Police said in its latest statement. 

While the rallies to burn Koran were cancelled at two places due to the protests, several incidents of stone pelting on the police and burning of vehicles were reported. 

What sparked the protests ?

Behind the protests are a series of rallies organised by Danish-Swedish politician Rasmus Paludan and his party ‘Stram Kurs’ (Hard Line), a far-right political outfit known for being anti-Islam and anti-immigration. On April 15, in a Facebook post, Mr. Paludan had claimed that he had burned the Koran in Rinkeby, Stockholm, and said that he planned to organise more such rallies in Orebro and Landskrona. 

The police granted permission for the rallies saying that that the right to express one’s opinion is constitutionally protected. However, Mr. Paludan said that he was denied permission to hold demonstrations in two locations — Norrkoping and Ostergotland. 

Violent protests and riots broke out in places such as Stockholm, Landskrona, Orebro, Malmo, Linkoping, and Norrkoping in opposition to the planned demonstrations by Mr. Paludan.

As many as 40 people, including 26 police officers and 14 others, were injured while 20 police cars were destroyed or damaged, according to a report by the Associated Press citing officials.

“During the weekend, there has been violence in six places where permission has been given for public gatherings. Two of the six licensed public gatherings could be held. In one case it had to be dissolved and in three cases the meetings could not start due to serious disturbances,” the police said in a statement. 

‘Serious violence against life and property’

A group of 150 people threw stones at police personnel and vehicles and set cars on fire during a protest in Norrkoping as the police fired warning shots in which three people were hit by “ricochets” and hospitalised, AP reported citing officials. In Malmo, the third largest city in the country, police used tear gas to disband an angry group of mostly young men who had set fire to a school, car tires and garbage cans in Rosengard district.

“We have seen violent riots before. But this is something else. It is a serious violence against life and property, especially against police officers. It is very worrying and we will take strong countermeasures. This should not continue,” Sweden’s national police chief Anders Thornberg said in a statement. 

The police also said that several people behind the violence were already identified and asked for more evidence (videos, films, pictures) from the public to help in the investigation. 

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said that the violent protestors should be arrested for their act while also noting that the message of Mr. Paludan was of hatred. “Although it is a heinous message of hatred that Paludan stands for, it is unacceptable, unjustifiable and illegal to react with this serious violence.  I want to be very clear: whoever attacks the Swedish police attacks the Swedish democratic society. Those responsible must be arrested, sentenced and serve their sentences,” she told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet.

Paludan: no stranger to controversy

Mr. Paludan is no stranger to controversy or social media posts that further his anti-Islmaic rhetoric. In 2020, too, he burned a Koran in Malmo along with his supporters, which had also resulted in violent protests in the country. He has previously been banned from Belgium for one year, from Sweden itself for two years, expelled from France after he signalled about burning a Koran in Paris, and sentenced to a suspended jail term in Denmark in June 2020 for offences including racism and defamation,  according to a news report by Deutsche Welle.

He contested the 2019 elections in Denmark and secured 1.8% votes, just short of the 2% threshold needed to enter the country’s Parliament. He is also reportedly planning to contest the general elections in Sweden, due in September this year.

Growing right-wing wave in Sweden

Hard Line is certainly not the only political group to toe the anti-Muslim, anti-immigration lines in Sweden. The Sweden Democrats, another right-wing populist party, could secure the votes needed for the conservative opposition parties in Sweden to win a majority in the upcoming elections, according to a report by Bloomberg earlier in May 2021.

In the 2010 general elections, the party crossed the 4% threshold  to enter the country’s Parliament, and in the 2018 elections, the party won 17.5% votes, securing 62 out of the total 349 seats. 

The Moderate party, a centre-right outfit currently in the opposition, in January 2021 said the Sweden Democrats became a “constructive force” in Parliament and that they would cooperate with them, according to the Bloomberg report.  The report also stated that the popularity of the Sweden Democrats appeared to have risen with the influx of immigrants into the country.

A report from the Pew Research Centre in 2017 showed that between 2010 and 2016 an estimated 77% of the 200,000 refugees and 58% of the 250,000 regular migrants in Sweden were Muslims. According to data from the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities over 240,000 Muslims were in Sweden as of 2020. World Bank data estimated Sweden’s total population at 10,353,442 for the same year.

The party has openly stated that it supports the assimilation of immigrants, in which the immigrants adapt the practices of the Swedish community. “We will never give way to Islamism or other extremism, here democracy and equality should prevail,” their website states.

International reactions

Outside Sweden, the call to burn the Quran has evoked responses from several Islamic countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry released a statement condemning the incident calling it “Islamophobic” and “racist” and said “crimes of hatred” were being “tolerated under the guise of freedom of expression.” 

While Saudi Arabia called for “concerted efforts to spread the values ​​of dialogue, tolerance and coexistence, rejecting hatred, extremism and exclusion, and preventing abuse of all religions and sanctities,” Iran condemned “setting the Holy Quran on fire in Sweden by a Danish racist and extremist element, which took place under the pretext of freedom of expression with the support of Sweden’s police.” Iraq, Qatar and Jordan were also among the other countries which strongly condemned the incident in Sweden.

 Meanwhile, organisations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Muslim World League also criticised the incident and expressed concerns about extremism, counter-extremism and Islamophobia. 

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