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: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.