Quran Burning in Sweden Triggers Violent Riots

Between March 14th and March 16th, far-right Danish-Swedish politician Rasmus Paludan burned Qurans in several Swedish cities as part of his anti-immigrant, anti-Islam political platform. This triggered huge protests, some of which became violent riots, as young men set trash cans ablaze and threw Molotov cocktails at police vehicles. According to the BBC, 26 police officers and 14 civilians were injured in the riots, and over 20 vehicles were damaged or destroyed. Around 200 people were involved in the violence and more than 40 have been arrested.

The Wall Street Journal quoted National Police Chief Anders Thornberg: “It is serious violence against life and property, especially against police officers. It is very worrying and we will take strong countermeasures.” It is believed that several of those involved in the riots have ties to criminal gangs that intentionally target police and used Paludan’s Quran-burning rally as a pretext to engage in street violence, reported NPR. 

Although Paludan’s actions have been highly criticized by Swedish government officials, Sweden remains committed to freedom of speech and expression and won’t take action to stop Paludan. According to France 24, Justice Minister Morgan Johansson said, “We are living in a democracy with far-reaching freedoms of speech and the press and we should be very proud of that.” 

Rasmus Paludan holds both Danish and Swedish citizenship and plans to run in Sweden’s next parliamentary election. He is the founder and leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant, and anti-Islam political party Hard Line. The party is quite small, having won less than 2% of the vote in the 2019 Danish national elections. Hard Line pushes for radical changes to immigration policy. Specifically, it strives for a complete ban on all non-Western immigration and deportation of all Muslim immigrants, including those with refugee status, visas, or permanent residence. Hard Line also supports revoking citizenship for immigrants who have naturalized. Though this party platform holds little appeal for the majority of Danes and Swedes, Paludan has received widespread attention by burning Qurans across Europe. 

While burning Qurans, or any religious book, is deplorable, protests only exacerbate the issue and give power to Paludan. As Professor Andreas Önnerfors explained in an Al-Jazeera interview, provocateurs such as Paludan burn Qurans because it is an extremely easy, inexpensive way to spark outrage that gains widespread attention. Without protests, this would have been only a local interest story. However, dozens of major news outlets, from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times, have covered this story, giving Paludan exactly the publicity he wants. If people had remained silent on the issue or protested in less visibly, there would be little incentive to continue engaging in this horrible act. 

Paludan has now turned the riots into part of his campaign for the Swedish Parliament this fall. In an email, Paludan wrote, “These riots against the police and the rule of law will continue no matter what I do.” In this way, Paludan hopes to gain the sympathy of those who, though they may not approve of burning Qurans, are highly concerned about disorder and lawlessness. Paludan is also able to present himself as a defender of free speech and free expression in the face of violent opposition. Though Paludan and his political party are still far from the 4% of votes needed in Sweden’s proportional election system to win any seats in Parliament, the chaotic riots have only helped Paludan’s cause and touched on anti-immigrant sentiments already held by some in Sweden.

A critical issue at hand is how to stop such protests in the future from becoming violent. There is evidence that the violent riots were only indirectly linked to Paludan’s actions and were carried out by those with links to criminal gangs. The Head of Police Special Forces, Jonas Hysing, has called for more resource allocation to police officers to confront organized crime, according to France 24. These riots are also a signal that Sweden must adjust its policies to combat rising poverty and inequality. Sweden should additionally review its approach to integrating immigrants already in Sweden and implement policies that help immigrants assimilate culturally, financially, and socially to avoid growing social unrest. 

To prevent future violence, Sweden must tackle the rise of Islamophobia and xenophobia while also addressing crime and poverty in Swedish cities. The Swedish public can also take action to show their opposition to Paludan’s disrespect against Muslim immigrants. For example, communities could host events to demonstrate solidarity between native-born Swedes and Muslim immigrants while fostering meaningful friendships. They can vote against political parties that focus on Islamophobic rhetoric and support policies that ease the assimilation of immigrants into Swedish society.