21st Sep 2023

Sweden braces for fresh Koran burning

  • Thirty out of 31 imams contacted by Swedish newspaper Doku said Koran-burning should be illegal (Photo: Viktor_K79)
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Another Koran burning is set to take place in Sweden on Thursday (3 August), risking Muslim anger and feeding Russian propaganda.

The anti-Islam protest is to take place at 1PM on the Ängbybadet beach in Bromma, some 10km from Stockholm city centre, according to police permit seen by EUobserver.

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The organiser, an Iranian refugee called Marjan Bahrami, "is responsible for maintaining good order at the event," her permit says.

The beach venue is not as confrontational as recent burnings, which took place outside parliament (31 July), before Stockholm's central mosque (28 June), and outside the Turkish embassy (21 January).

And Bahrami's grievance is less clear than the politics of former incidents, which involved individuals with Iraqi and Russian links.

But whatever her motives, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Saudi Arabia called Koran-burning an act of Islamophobic "aggression" and urged UN intervention on Monday.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has personally stoked the Muslim outcry.

And Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson described the situation as "dangerous" on Tuesday, amid fear of revenge attacks by Islamist extremists inside Sweden or abroad.

Monday's burning next to parliament took place "without serious disturbances" in the city, Stockholm police told EUobserver, even though the vast majority of Swedish imams say such events should be banned.

But previous media activity shows how even a beach incident could go viral globally — and there's no legal way to stop other Swedish copycats from burning any number of Korans in future.

There were "well over one million" media and social media posts about the Turkish-embassy event, mostly by Turkish, English, and Arabic language sources, according to the Swedish Institute (SI), a government body which monitors the country's image abroad.

The same intensity was seen after the Stockholm-mosque incident, when Arabic sources were the most active.

Most of the anti-Swedish content was "geo-located" in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iraq, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, the SI said.

"However, dishonouring of the Koran on 31 July got relatively little attention compared to the earlier events. It hasn't been a week yet, but it's nowhere near the reactions after 21 January and 28 June," an SI expert noted.

One reason might be because Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now keeping quiet after having agreed to ratify Sweden's Nato accession in October.

But at the same time, Kremlin spin doctors have jumped on the bandwagon, adding another element of volatility.

"It's a new phenomenon," said Mikael Östlund, a spokesman for the Swedish Psychological Defence Agency, whose 55 staff monitor foreign interference.

It began when Putin hugged a Koran at a mosque in Dagestan, Russia, on 29 June and "falsely claimed that Sweden was hostile to Muslims", Östlund said.

Kremlin media also claim Sweden is "unsafe" for refugees and Swedish people.

And even though Russian stories have "very little credibility" among Swedish audiences, Östlund said, their main targets are anyway Muslims in Turkey and north Africa, where Putin is using the crisis to provoke anti-Western feeling.

Meanwhile, the clash between Nordic values on free speech and Islamic ones on blasphemy goes back to the Mohammed cartoons controversy of some 20 years ago, when Muslim leaders also vied with each other to defend the prophet's honour.

Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks had to live under police protection for the rest of his life after a fatwa for drawing Mohammed with the body of a dog in 2007.

And the Swedish government now relies on votes from the far-right Sweden Democrats party, some of whose MPs also insult Islam.

But despite the dangers all that brings, there's only one generally forbidden symbol in Sweden — the swastika.

Last taboo and legal loopholes

It can still be used in satire, but the Nazi emblem is so redolent of the Holocaust that its political display violates legislation against "hets mot folkgrupp" — "incitement to hatred against an ethnic group", said Mårten Schultz, a law professor at Stockholm University.

Russia's Z-logo is also used in Russia and abroad to show support for the war in Ukraine.

And the "the Z-symbol hasn't been tested yet in Sweden", Schultz noted.

But it might well be permitted given that fairly all other signs are legal — so that Swedish neo-Nazis can parade with swastika-like Sun Crosses or Nazi-uniform "SS" badges, let alone people vandalising holy books.

Swedish authorities can only stop protests if demonstrators are violent, disrupt traffic, cause a public health risk as in times of Covid, or if there's not enough police to maintain security because, for instance 100 Koran-burners applied for permits in the same week.

"The general idea is you cannot limit freedom of speech and freedom of assembly just because other people get angry and might start committing acts of violence against the demonstrators," Schultz said.

"That would mean violent mobs could take away your rights," he said.

"It's a difficult issue with fundamental values felt as being under attack on either side," added Paul Levin, an international relations professor also at Stockholm University.

But if Koran-burning was curbed, it would be a "slippery slope", he said.

"We don't want blasphemy laws or any changes to legislation that were made under threats of violence or to placate a foreign authoritarian ruler," Levin said.

And legal tweaks might anyway be futile, given how identity politics worked, he indicated.

"Neo-Nazis find workarounds stopping short of swastikas, but not much short," Levin told EUobserver.

"Even if Sweden banned burning of the Koran, they [anti-Islam protesters] would find another way to upset Muslims," he said.


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