ANALYSIS: Riots over Koran burning test Swedish tolerance

Riots across Sweden sparked by a notorious anti-immigrant provocateur threatening to tour the country burning the Koran has challenged the country's limits to free speech.

ANALYSIS: Riots over Koran burning test Swedish tolerance
Police block off rioters in Rosengård, Malmö, on Saturday night. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Police clashed with groups of mostly masked young men in several towns and cities after the anti-Islam Danish-Swedish politician Rasmus Paludan announced his Koran burning “tour” for the Muslim holy month of Ramadam.

Swedish police insisted they had to grant permits for Paludan’s incendiary events because of the country’s liberal freedom of speech laws.

But several Muslim countries have reacted angrily, with Iraq’s foreign ministry warning the affair could have “serious repercussions” on “relations between Sweden and Muslims in general.”

Despite the outcry, justice minister Morgan Johansson stressed the importance of protecting the country’s freedoms.

“We are living in a democracy with far-reaching freedoms of speech and the press and we should be very proud of that,” he said.

But he admitted that those freedoms were being used by a “Danish extremist” to foster “hate, division and violence,” which he deplored.


At least 40 people were hurt — 26 of them police officers — and as many arrested after days of rioting over the Easter weekend in Norrkoping, Linkoping, Landskrona, Orebro, Malmo and the capital Stockholm.

A school was also set alight with 20 police vehicles either damaged or destroyed.

But with Paludan announcing more events, many local officials are having misgivings.

“Under these circumstances, the police should not grant permits for more public gatherings,” Anna Thorn, city manager of Norrkoping, told a press conference on Tuesday.

Freedom of speech has historically enjoyed strong protection in Sweden. While police can deny permits for gatherings that would constitute “incitement of against an ethnic group”, the bar is usually high.

READ ALSO: Don’t blame ordinary Muslims in Sweden for the riots

Much of the rioters’ fury was directed at police, with national police chief Anders Thornberg even saying they “tried to kill police officers”. The Koran burnings were planned for areas with large Muslim populations, which also happen to be neighbourhoods that Swedish police designate “vulnerable areas”.’

The term refers to areas with “high levels of poverty, high levels of people of a foreign background and by having criminal networks exerting pressure on those living in or visiting these neighbourhoods,” Manne Gerell, an associate professor of Criminology at Malmo University, told AFP.

READ ALSO: Swedish police say riots are ‘extremely serious crimes against society

‘Tense relationship’

The wealthy Scandinavian country of 10.3 million has a generous immigration policy, granting asylum and family reunifications to more than 400,000 people between 2010 and 2019, according to official figures. But Sweden has struggled to integrate many, with experts claiming that thousands fail to learn the language proficiently and find jobs.

Gerell said some of these areas have also seen riots targeting “authorities in general, and police in particular”.  Higher crime in these areas also leads to police stopping and searching young men who often feel angry and picked upon.

“Many of them would maybe even hate the police,” Gerell said. While political and religious grievances could be triggers, some of the rioters could also be thrill-seekers or those just looking to vent their frustration with police, the criminologist argued.

Kivanc Atak, a researcher at the criminology department of Stockholm’s University, said the “tense relationship” between police and ethnic minority youth was not limited to Sweden.

But previous riots targeting police have been triggered by incidents directly involving officers, such as shootings during arrests.

Atak said it was “striking” that this was not the case this time, and it called into question where the line between free speech and outright provocation should be drawn.

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OPINION: Racism doesn’t get much more obvious than Sweden’s refugee bias

When you look at Sweden's reception of Ukrainian refugees, it's clear that what was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria, is not considered good enough for white Christians from Ukraine, notes Stockholm University Professor Christian Christensen.

OPINION: Racism doesn't get much more obvious than Sweden's refugee bias

As thousands of Ukrainian refugees began to arrive in Sweden following the invasion by Russia, the headline of a recent opinion piece by the leader of Sweden’s far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrat party spoke volumes: ‘There is a Difference Between Refugees and “Refugees”’

For Åkesson and his nationalist supporters, Ukrainian refugees are “real” refugees. They are from ”a Christian country with a culture that is more closely related” to that of Sweden, while refugees who escaped Syria and Afghanistan were framed as being made up of millions of backward, poorly-educated “professional migrants” (his term) devoid of European values and sensibilities.

With this backdrop, recent comments posted on Twitter by a municipal council member in Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, provided a disturbing insight into how politicians, not only the far-right but on all sides of the political spectrum, use different sets of standards when considering Ukrainian and Syrian refugees. And how the vision of refugees held by the Swedish far-right has bled into the Swedish political mainstream.

On May 5, Daniel Bernmar, the group leader for the opposition Left Party in the Gothenburg municipal council, sent a series of tweets in which he detailed how fellow council members expressed dismay over the poor services and paltry benefits available to refugees arriving from Ukraine. While on the surface an egalitarian position, the irony, Bernmar pointed out, was that the levels of financial support and services about which they were complaining were set by the very same group of politicians…when the arriving refugees were predominantly Syrian.

In other words, what the local politicians considered to be acceptable support for Syrians was now considered unacceptable support for Ukrainians.

Bernmar detailed a number of the specific concerns expressed by his colleagues.

Members of anti-immigration Sweden Democrats complained that the small amount of spending money given to Ukrainian refugees meant that they could not even afford to take local buses. Why, they asked, had the policy of allowing refugees to ride for free been scrapped? Others asked how without access to public transport Ukrainian refugees could be expected to take their children to school or look for work? And, in perhaps the most Swedish of issues, municipal councilors expressed concern that Ukrainian parents could not send children under the age of three to state-subsidized daycare.

Bernmar noted that he had “never before heard these parties or people address the unacceptable social or economic situation for refugees.” He then addressed the elephant in the room. The dismay expressed by colleagues over conditions facing refugees – conditions the same politicians approved when refugees were Syrian – was unsurprising, he wrote, given that they, “did not previously apply to white, Christian Europeans.”

These revelations should come as no surprise. While seemingly at odds with Sweden’s reputation for openness and egalitarianism, the fact is that political parties at both ends of the Swedish political spectrum have adopted increasingly aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Yet, when structural discrimination is presented in such a transparent fashion, it is still jarring.

At the most fundamental level, the case demonstrates how perceptions of the value of human life and human dignity are shaped by ethnicity, religion, and nationality. What was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria just isn’t good enough for white, European Christians. Racism and ethnocentrism don’t come much clearer than that.

But this revelation cuts even deeper and wider. And it applies to nations beyond Sweden’s borders, where immigrants and refugees struggle to construct new futures. What is evident from the comments made by the local politicians in Gothenburg is that they are fully aware of the impact of their policies on the everyday lives of refugees, how the ability to participate in the workforce, for example, is dependent upon basics such as transportation and childcare. That “integration” isn’t just a question of some mythological will, but of available material resources.

To remember that with Ukrainians, but forget it with Syrians, is cynicism of the highest order. It is to amplify the smear that there is a difference between refugees and “refugees.”

Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.