How Koran burning has turned the Swedish way of life on its head
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Stockholm: The area surrounding the Grand Mosque in Sweden’s capital has become a lively gathering place for all types, full of bars, restaurants and coffee shops.
Known as Medborgarplatsen, the name given to the large square loosely translates as The Citizens’ Place. And being a citizen in Sweden is a role that has long been taken rather seriously.
Crowds at the Medborgarplatsen in Stockholm, Sweden.Credit: Alamy
There has long been a proud national narrative of “Swedish Exceptionalism” for which all citizens must contribute, spanning from fiercely guarded freedoms of expression, political consensualism, rationality, a universal and generous welfare state, high levels of equality and exceptional levels of institutional and social trust.
For decades no value was placed any higher than welcoming refugees and providing asylum. While the nation guarded its ethnic homogeneity before the 1930s, by World War II, Sweden began accepting Norwegian, Jewish, Danish, and Estonian immigrants.
In the decades following, they welcomed Iranians after the Islamic revolution, Chileans fleeing Augusto Pinochet, and war refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Being a safe haven for others became a point of pride and for many years only Canada and Australia resettled more refugees on a per capita basis.
While other European countries moved toward stricter immigration policies in the 1990s and 2000s, Sweden opened up. But slowly the growing pains of this new multiculturalism and the Swedish way of life have begun to hurt. Then, about six weeks ago, just near that Citizens’ Place, a local protest began to turn everything on its head.
Salwan Momika waves the Swedish flag outside the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm in July.Credit: AP
Salwan Momika, a 37-year-old Christian Iraqi refugee, strutted into view behind rows of police officers outside the picturesque Stockholm Central Mosque, waving two Swedish flags as the national anthem blasted over a speaker system.
Witnesses then recalled, with white AirPods in his ears and a cigarette hanging from his mouth, he desecrated the Koran repeatedly by tearing it up and lighting it on fire. He also laid a strip of bacon on the book and began stamping on it with his foot.
In a scene intended to shock and antagonise the Muslim community, which was celebrating the holiday of Eid al-Adha, it was instead largely mocked, dismissed, or ignored by about 200 people gathered outside.
But Momika, who sought political asylum in Sweden a few years ago, staged a further two protests in July where he set fire to the book outside the Swedish parliament and again stomped on a Koran and used the Iraqi flag to wipe his shoes outside Iraq’s embassy in Stockholm.
Salwan Momika is escorted by police to a location outside the Iraqi embassy.Credit: AP
This time the incidents, given a permit by police in line with free-speech protections, triggered furious reactions from governments in Muslim countries including the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Jordan and Morocco. In Iraq, the Swedish ambassador was expelled and followers of a populist cleric stormed the country’s embassy in Baghdad.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Saudi Arabia called Koran-burning an act of “aggression” which represented a “culture of hatred and racism, and a manifestation of Islamophobia”. It urged intervention from the United Nations.
The imam of the Stockholm Central Mosque, Mahmoud Khalfi, says the increased spate of burnings has stirred anger among Muslim communities in Scandinavia. Earlier in the year, far-right demonstrators burned a Koran and chanted anti-Muslim slogans in front of Turkey’s embassy in Stockholm and have spread through copycat actions by other anti-Islam groups.
Khalfi believes Muslims in Sweden are facing growing harassment.
“Every time, you wait for this absurdity that nobody supports to be put to a stop. It’s just negative and has dangerous consequences,” he says, adding the recent string of protests have had “nothing to do with freedom of expression”.
“We understand the need for freedom of expression, but we want something to change in how we are treated.
“The burning [of the Koran] is part of a bigger pattern of hatred here that makes us feel very unsafe.”
He added that many young Muslims now felt Sweden was hostile to Islam, which he feared could fuel extremism.
Protesters hold copies of the Koran as they demonstrate outside the Consulate General of Sweden in Istanbul, Turkey.Credit: Reuters
Amid a fierce reaction from the Muslim world, both the Swedish and Danish governments are now seeking to limit protests burning the Koran and other holy books by countering strong freedom of speech laws that have permitted the acts.
Swedish authorities can only stop protests if demonstrators are violent, disrupt traffic, cause a public health risk, or if there is not enough police to maintain security. And even for those uncomfortable with the antics of the protagonists, the potential move to crack down on the acts has triggered criticism in Scandinavia.
Sweden and Denmark, along with Norway, are widely regarded as the most secular and progressive countries in the world, but the influx of Muslims from war-torn countries in the past decade has greatly impacted politics and society.
In 2015, the Swedish government received a record-high 162,877 applications for asylum, primarily from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It represented about 1.6 per cent of Sweden’s population of 10 million – proportionally equivalent to more than 5 million people applying for asylum in the United States, which only received about 83,000 asylum applications that year.
In just three months, 114,000 predominantly Muslim refugees arrived primarily into Malmö and small towns in the south, overwhelming the capacity of both government and civil society organisations while garnering continuous media attention.
Demonstrators burn the Swedish flag during a protest in Tehran.Credit: Reuters
It has fuelled massive support for the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats, who gained seats at a national and local level since, with the moderate-led coalition government now reliant on their support in parliament.
Adding another layer of complexity to the issue has been Sweden’s bid to join NATO following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has ended Stockholm’s active foreign policy defined by non-alliance. Russia has been accused of fuelling a social media backlash, with cyber experts pointing out posts were deliberately “geo-located” in countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia targets, where Putin is using the crisis to provoke anti-Western feeling.
Sweden’s prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, has used increasingly dramatic language to describe the crisis, while also accusing Russia and others of trying to spread disinformation about the burnings by falsely claiming that his government was behind the acts.
Police members try to restrain a man outside Stockholm’s mosque at Medborgarplatsen in July. Credit: AP
“We are currently in the most serious security situation since the Second World War and, as for Sweden, we are aware that states and state-like actors are actively exploiting the situation,” he said earlier this month.
He added that the Swedish government had “started analysing the legal situation – including the Public Order Act – with the purpose of exploring the scope for measures that would strengthen our national security and the security of Swedes in Sweden and abroad”.
Swedish police have several times tried to use public order legislation to stop the burnings but have been overturned subsequently by court decisions that have stated the burnings are permitted unless there is an immediate security threat.
Local Muslim leaders fear this would not solve the problem and would only feed the narrative that action was being taken because of a violent reaction from the communities, and not race and religious baiting by others. They believe the burning of Holy books should come under laws that already ban hate speech against specific individuals and groups.
But Nils Funcke, a prominent Swedish freedom of speech advocate, says any attempts to curtail freedom of speech would signal that violent attacks, including on the Swedish embassy in Iraq, were successful.
“The distinction between criticism of religion and incitement against an ethnic group has been lost in the Koran burning debate. It is pointless to ban Koran burning,” he says.
“Freedom of assembly and demonstration are central to ensure the free formation of opinions. Not even in war or at danger of war, rights may be restricted to a greater extent than that the government can ban gatherings at specific places.”
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