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

Those who rioted in response to Qur’an burnings in Sweden over the weekend represent a tiny minority of Muslims in Sweden, and what's more, police have linked many to gangs. The debate in Sweden needs to avoid blaming ordinary Muslims, argues Stockholm University professor Christian Christensen.

OPINION: Don't blame ordinary Muslims in Sweden for the riots
Rioters in the Malmö district of Rosengård on Sunday night. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

When violence broke out this last week across Sweden, with stone-throwing against public transport, car burnings, multiple attacks on police, and a rare instance of police shooting protesters, the table was set for a heated national debate.

The violence was triggered by rallies held by the Danish anti-Muslim activist Rasmus Paludan and his far-right Stram Kurs party, which saw him burn copies of the Qur’an during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. 

It is in the nature of politics and media to resist complexity in favor of the simple. The reason is straightforward: framing events, people, or policies in unambiguous binary terms offers not only the security blanket of clarity, but also the ability to leverage events to score political or ideological points.

More often than not, however, this clarity is an illusion.

There have been few, if any, Swedish politicians, journalists, or pundits who have defended the violence. The condemnation has been fairly uniform, including from local politicians and organizations from the areas impacted by the protests.

Of course, some have pointed out that it was Paludan’s intent to generate outrage and violence. This isn’t the first time he has done it, and it won’t be the last. And, the decision by police to allow demonstrations clearly targeting Muslims to be held in districts with significant Muslim populations, and to do so during the holy month of Ramadan, has been condemned as short-sighted and unnecessarily provocative.

Discussions regarding the events of the past few days have fallen into one of three (often overlapping) thematic categories. First, that these events are examples of failed immigration and integration policies; second, that attacks against police illustrate how many recently-arrived immigrants to Sweden in general, and recently-arrived Muslim immigrants in particular, have no respect for the law and are inherently violent; and, third, that the reaction to Paludan burning (or threatening to burn) the Qur’an is clear evidence that Muslims do not share Swedish values in relation to free speech and free expression.

It is obvious how events in Sweden over the past few days would make these themes powerful and convincing to those critical of immigration and of Islam. Images of rioters looting and then burning empty police cars are striking.

However, they also discourage complexity and reasoning in favor of simplicity and emotion.

So, where is the “complexity” here?

Bluntly, it’s in the fact that the people engaging in these acts represent a minuscule minority of recently-arrived immigrants to Sweden.

It’s that the arguments about the attacks being evidence of failed integration, inherent immigrant violence, and stereotypical Muslim rejection of free speech rest upon the faulty premise that those who took part somehow represent all residents of Sweden with the same national, ethnic, or religious backgrounds.

And there are additional layers. Police in Sweden have commented that they saw these “protests” as linked to known criminal gangs, thus undermining the argument that this was simply about Muslims, religious fervor, and opposition to free speech.

Police also noted that there is evidence that individuals outside of Sweden, also linked to criminal gangs, used the presence of Rasmus Paludan as a pretext to encourage attacks on police.

Public debate in Sweden on the violence illuminates problematic framings of not only immigrants but also of citizenship and national belonging.

When I was growing up in the UK in the late 1970s and 1980s, thousands of young, white male football fans would, on a weekly basis, engage in acts of vandalism and extreme public violence, including against the police. Not once, however, was I (as a young, white male living in England) assumed to be part of this group simply on the basis of my ethnicity or presumed religious background. Nor was I ever asked to assume responsibility (as a young, white male living in England) for those acts. There were no anguished discussions within the UK press or political classes about whether or not the routine lawlessness was proof that young, white male English culture was inherently violent.

Yet, when those with particular backgrounds engage in acts of criminality or violence (such as the ones we have seen in Sweden over the past few days), it is common for all members of their communities to be lumped together in crude ethnic and/or religious collective guilt.

But it goes beyond that. Members of these social groups are also asked to “prove” their philosophical, material, and even physical opposition to criminality and violence. Did they speak out publicly? Did they go to the demonstrations and try to stop people? In other words, while the benchmark for most citizens in Sweden is a simple willingness to obey the law, groups such as Muslim immigrants must go beyond that and show not only a willingness to obey the law, but to condemn and even oppose those who do not. Living an ordinary life isn’t enough. Immigrants must “prove” their national values and allegiance.

As the 2022 elections approach, it is clear that crime and policing will figure high on the list of voter concerns. Integration, citizenship, and national identity will also register as key issues.

But so long as these debates are marked by simplistic stereotyping and binary thinking they are condemned to remain at superficial levels.

Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.

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OPINION: Sweden must demand that Julian Assange go free

Given Sweden’s involvement in the Assange case, the government’s continued silence over his impending extradition to the US is indefensible, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden must demand that Julian Assange go free

I have no personal fondness for Julian Assange. I cannot forgive him for not condemning the torrent of abuse and slander suffered by the two Swedish women who, in 2010, accused him of sexual assault. His treatment of them has been shameful. Assange has continued to protest his innocence and has not expressed any regret for what happened

But that was then and this is now. At stake is something much bigger than the fate of one man and two women. And the Swedish government bears a clear share of responsibility for the outcome. 

Sweden’s prosecutors dropped the sexual assault investigation against Assange in 2017. For more than three years, he has been held in a maximum security prison in London while he has fought extradition to the United States on espionage charges. In April, a British court finally approved the extradition and referred the matter to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. 

Today (June 17), Patel gave the green light for extradition; Assange has 14 days to appeal. 

Extradition would be a colossal blow against media freedom. Journalists would fear to investigate US military and surveillance operations around the world. Assange himself faces a lifetime in jail for publishing classified documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including evidence of war crimes

Many Swedish free speech organisations recognise this. “The information obtained thanks to Julian Assange and Wikileaks is of great public interest. In a democracy, whistleblowers must be protected, not taken to court to become pawns in a political game,” says the Swedish Journalists’ Association. A large number of press freedom and human right organisations have echoed these words, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Index on Censorship, to name but a few.

“Should Assange be extradited to the US, it could have serious consequences for investigative journalism,” says the Swedish branch of Reporters without Borders. “Through the indictment of Assange, the US is also sending a signal to all journalists who want to examine the actions of the US military and security services abroad, or US arms deals for that matter. This also applies to Swedish journalists.”

Last month, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, called on Patel not to extradite Assange, saying it would have “a chilling effect on media freedom”.  Anna Ardin, one of the women who brought the original accusations of sexual assault, describes the accusations against Assange for espionage as “helt galet” (completely crazy). 

Given Sweden’s involvement in the Assange case, the continued silence from Rosenbad, the seat of government offices in Stockholm, is indefensible. 

For the seven years in which Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, he said consistently and repeatedly that he was prepared to face justice in Sweden, but feared extradition to the United States and therefore required a guarantee that this would not happen. His treatment in the UK is proof that his fears were justified. 

As early as September 2012, The Local quoted Amnesty International on this matter: “If the Swedish authorities are able to confirm publicly that Assange will not eventually find himself on a plane to the USA if he submits himself to the authority of the Swedish courts then this will … it will break the current impasse and second it will mean the women who have levelled accusations of sexual assault are not denied justice.”

And yet, throughout, Sweden’s Ministry of Justice kept quiet. Instead, the Swedish Prosecution Authority stated repeatedly: “Every extradition case is to be judged on its own individual merits. For that reason the Swedish government cannot provide a guarantee in advance that Julian Assange would not be subject to further extradition to the USA.”

In 2016, a United Nations panel decided that Sweden had violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It called on the Swedish authorities to end Assange’s “deprivation of liberty”, respect his freedom of movement and offer him compensation. Again, the government itself remained silent, although Sweden’s director-general for legal affairs said that it disagreed with the panel.

Freedom of speech is one of the four “fundamental laws” that make up the Swedish constitution. There can be no excuse now for Morgan Johansson, Justice Minister, not to speak out in defence of Assange’s role as a whistleblower and journalist. 

Imagine if Assange had revealed Russian war crimes in Ukraine and was being held in Moscow’s high security prison? Every Western leader would be up in arms. 

Assange’s wife Stella Moris has Swedish citizenship. Her life, and that of their two children, will be destroyed if her husband, their father, is sent to rot in a US jail.

At this point in time, when Sweden’s independence in global affairs is in doubt owing to pressure from Turkey over its application to join Nato, it is even more vital for the government to break its silence and help bring the persecution of Julian Assange to an end. 

David Crouch covered Julian Assange’s campaign in the Swedish courts for The Guardian newspaper and is among 1900 journalists to have signed a statement in his defence. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.