Burning of Qur’an by Far-Right Activists Incites Riots in Sweden

On the night of Friday 29 August, more than 300 people took to the streets of the Swedish town of Malmö after far-right activists had burned a Qur’an earlier that day. Danish anti-Muslim politician Rasmus Paludan had called for a protest in Malmö, but after permission for the protest had been withdrawn Paludan was stopped at the border.

Yet, some of his supporters carried on with the rally. When the video of a group of activists burning a copy of the Qur’an during the rally was posted online, young Muslim men took to the streets to protest the burning of the Muslim holy book. In the ensuing riots, the rioters threw stones at the police and burned tires, which led to the arrest of about 15 protesters. This incident shows that the polarising effect of Islamophobia is only right under the surface of the “tolerant” Swedish society and the rest of Europe.

Miguel Moratinos, the head of the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations, expressed “unequivocal condemnation of the burning of the Qur’an by far-right extremists … as despicable and totally unacceptable.” He notes that “such deplorable acts perpetrated by hate-mongers, including by far-right extremists and other radical groups, incite violence and tear apart the fabric of our communities.” In addition to the widespread denunciation of the burning of the Qur’an, the rioters also faced criticism. For instance, prominent Malmö Imam Samir Muric  spoke out again the rioters, saying that “Those who are acting in this way have nothing to do with Islam.”

Such denunciations are important to combat extremism, hate crime, and violence. However, they run the risk of obscuring the normalized hate and violence in our society. How tolerant is this usual “fabric of our communities” that Moratinos speaks of exactly? Notwithstanding Imam Muric’s notion that the rioters “had nothing to do with Islam”, their position in Swedish society has everything to do with their religion and ethnicity. According to a poll carried out by the Pew Research Centre in 2016, 35 percent of Swedes see Muslims in a negative light, 57 percent fear refugees compromise national security, and 32 percent fear they will take jobs and social benefits. Racist views of Muslims and other minorities manifest themselves in education and on the labour market. For instance, according to a 2019 OECD study, the difference in employment rates between first-generation immigrants and Swedish natives is the highest in Europe.

Hence, such outbursts of hate and violence are woven into the very “fabric of communities” Moratinos and other political elites are so eager to keep in place. The extremism of the far right is only one part of the problem. It is what we consider normal, namely the slumbering Islamophobia and subtle discrimination of Muslims and other minorities, that constitutes the foundation of these outbursts of resentment and violence. Although the political establishment has been denouncing hate speech on the far right, they have yet to articulate a convincing narrative to respond to the increasing salience of Islamophobic rhetoric. Mainstream politicians all across Europe have been feeding into the far-right narrative of “Islamist terrorism” (German Chancellor Angela Merkel), the incompatibility of “Islamist separatism” with European values (French President Emmanuel Macron), and foreign attacks on “our European way of life” (President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen).

Under the tip of one night of violent riots is an iceberg of systemic racism, discrimination, and exclusion pushed to its limits. Hence, moving beyond the outbursts of violence as seen in Malmö also entails acknowledging that racism and discrimination are problems that are upheld by society as a whole, rather than only by an extremist minority that is easy to denounce. Only then may we attempt to uphold the image of tolerance that Sweden and other European countries are so eager to profess.

Meindert Boersma