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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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‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.