ExplainedQuran Burning, Free Speech Debate & Racism In Scandinavia

We investigate the lines between freedom of speech & hate speech in light of the recent incidents in Sweden and Norway.

Far-right activists burned a Quran at Malmö – a city in the south of Sweden – in a predominantly migrant neighbourhood last Friday, which triggered violent protests leading to a riot-like situation. At least 15 people have been detained after the violence reportedly escalated overnight, with people throwing stones and burned tyres at the police, injuring several police officers. Additionally, three people were arrested on suspicion of inciting hatred against ethnic minorities by desecrating the Muslim holy book.

The Malmö police spokesperson Per-Erik Ebbeståhl also told Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyhetter that the violence was carried out by known troublemakers and criminals taking advantage of the situation. "Even though the Koran was desecrated we can confirm that the violent outburst following had nothing to do with religion," he was quoted as saying.

The Quran-burning incident was carried out by supporters of Danish far-right leader Rasmus Paludan, who was recently banned by a court order from entering Sweden for two years. This came right after Paludan made a request to burn the Muslim holy book in a protest, which was seen as incitement of hatred.

The situation in Malmö may have subsided swiftly, but a similar incident - albeit in a much smaller scale - happened in Oslo, Norway, with clashes breaking out between far-right protesters who desecrated the Quran, with counter-protesters who opposed hate speech and racism. These incidents have reignited a long-standing debate on immigration, free speech and discrimination which has been looming over Scandinavia and Europe over the past decade.

Provocation Of Religions Beliefs: Freedom Of Speech?...

In 2017, the Danish Parliament revoked the centuries old blasphemy laws after a 42-year-old Dane was charged with the same for posting a video of Quran-burning on Facebook. His lawyer - who was none other than Rasmus Paludan himself - said that the defendant had burnt the holy book in self-defence.

"The Quran contains passages on how Mohammed's followers must kill the infidel, i.e. the Danes," Paludan was quoted by New York Times as saying. "Therefore, it's an act of self-defence to burn a book that in such a way incites war and violence."

Two years later, Paludan - who leads the right-wing party Stram Kurs (Hard Line) - almost made it to the Danish Parliament with 1.8% of votes - 2% being the cut-off. "However, at the moment their popularity has declined dramatically. In the most recent poll, Stram Kurs is projected to receive only 0,4% of the votes," Jens Renner, a Danish journalist with a background in religious studies, told BOOM.

The debate around the right to provoke and criticise religious beliefs in Denmark goes beyond Paludan. In 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten courted major controversy after it posted a series of cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammed, which was considered as going against Islamic aniconism. This triggered major outrage among the Danish Muslim community, and led to attacks on Danish embassies in Muslim countries.

In Denmark, however, charges against Jyllands-Posten's editorial team were dropped in favour of freedom of speech. The Regional Public Prosecutor of Viborg also noted that the freedom of speech should be exercised with respect for human rights and the right to protection against discrimination - reflected by the fact that Paludan was jailed for a month for racism in July.

.. Or Hate Speech? A History Of Racism And Discrimination

The recent events in Malmö and Oslo go beyond provocation of religious beliefs, and has its core in a history of racism, discrimination and segregation of migrants from Muslim countries.

A 2007 Danish study had found that while there were laws and regulations in place to protect people from discrimination and racism, institutionalised practices often played a role in indirect discrimination in education and employment against Muslim minorities. It also noted that the country had a history of intolerance towards foreign cultures.

A year later, Brian Arly Jacobsen, a sociology researcher at the University of Copenhagen, studied parliamentary debates over Islam from the 1960s to 2000s, and noted that Muslims were perceived in Denmark as having a culture incompatible with Danish society.

With the influx of new waves of refugees in the past decade, the situation has further divided society in terms of people's opinions on the matter, with regards to provocative acts against ethnic minorities and the countries' ability to integrate migrants. While there has been increase in support for minority rights, hate crimes against Muslims in Denmark have also seen a sharp increase in 2017.

Weighing on this discussion, Renner told BOOM, "When Danes talk about Paludan around dinner tables, there is a debate going on about the right to free speech and the right to provoke Muslims and religious minorities. I think it is very interesting, and Paludan plays into this old debate on how we treat Muslim minorities in Denmark."

"Opinions are polarized in the same way as the opinions around the Muhammed cartoon crisis were. Either you think it's OK to criticize and provoke Islam (by citing the importance of free speech) and you think the violent reactions by the Muslims are the main problem, or you think it's not okay to provoke Muslims and Islam (because you think Denmark treats them bad) and you think Paludan's behaviour is the main problem," Renner added.

Anna-Maria Magnusson, a reporter working in Sweden, believes that there is a similar discussion going on among the Swedes. "The Swedish law is strict on protecting free speech as long as it doesn't discriminate any groups," she told BOOM.

Once a year, every political party in Sweden is given a platform to give a speech and answer questions from the public in an event known as Almedalsveckan. Observing freedom of speech, NMR (Nordic Resistance Movement) - a well-known Neo-Nazi party is also given a platform, provided they do not engage in hate speech. Therefore, while Paludan may not be barred from speaking, it is his intention of burning the Quran that got him banned from entering the country.

However, despite the setbacks, parties like Stram Kurs and Sweden Democrats have been gaining prominence in the recent years through increased polarisation on matters of immigration and asylum in Nordic countries.

Debate On Immigration And Asylum

The past decade saw a string of uprisings in the Middle-East and North-Africa, followed by some of the biggest refugee crises seen in recent times.

As European countries welcomed a large number of refugees between 2013-2017, the integration with local population presented its own set of challenges, symbolised by sporadic violence and unrest.

In 2015, a Sweden received a whopping 156,000 requests for asylum - the highest per capita in Europe. However, a series of violent unrest and riots in the past 7 years involving migrants (2013 riots, 2016 social unrest, 2017 Rinkeby riots) have led to questions regarding immigration and asylum in the country.

In September 2015, a poll showed that only around 29% Swedes thought the country was taking in too many refugees. Two months later this number went up to 41%.

The Emergence Of The Right

The polarisation of opinion on the matter of immigration has provided an opportunity for right-wing parties to rise, symbolised by increasing acts of provocation against ethnic minorities.

The recent rally in Oslo was organised by a fringe right-wing group called Stopp islamiseringen av Norge (Stop the "Islamification" of Norway, or SIAN), who has been organising such rallies in Oslo and Bergen. Oslo-based journalist Vilde Skorpen Wikan believes that the group itself is not that popular in Norway, and garners attention through provocation.

"SIAN is a small fringe group in Norway. I don't know how many members they have, but rallies are normally attended by only a handful of people. SIAN's rallies normally draw more police and counter-protestors, than actual SIAN representatives," Wikan told BOOM.

In Sweden, however, right-wing parties are gaining more prominence, much like in Denmark where Paludan was close to making it to the parliament. While the NMR or the Nordic Resistence Movement (a Neo-Nazi Party) has been in the sidelines, the Sweden Democrats (SD) - who have been characterised by their anti-immigration rhetoric and right-wing populism - has made it into the parliament with a more moderate approach.

Under the leadership of Jimmie Åkesson, who took over the party in 2005, SD has distanced itself from fascism and Nazism and other such hardline ideologies, thus gaining more prominence in public discourse. In the 2018 Swedish general election, SD became the third largest party in the country, securing 62 seats in the parliament and gaining 17.5% votes.

Magnusson believes that the moderate approach is waning, as the debate on immigration gets more polarised. "You can also see a growing trend from the mainstream right-wing parties that they are moving more to the right in their rhetoric. It's a strong polarisation which, most likely, will culminate in the 2022 election in Sweden," she said.

While Paludan himself may not be popular in Sweden, marked by a meagre 300 supporters showing up at his cancelled rally, the ensuing violence may just help the right-wing make head-way in the anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric, in not just Scandinavia and Europe, but also in India.

Despite reports in Swedish media quoting Malmö police stating that the violence was carried out by known criminals and not just counter-protesters, some Indian right-leaning portals and news organisations (here and here) failed to mention so and pinned the violence largely on individuals retaliating to the Islamophobic acts.

Currently, everything is back to normal in Malmö and the police have ruled it as a one-off incident. However, the fallout of the incident on the debate on free speech, discrimination and immigration in Scandinavia and Europe is yet to be seen.

Updated On: 2020-09-02T16:35:56+05:30
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