The riots stemming from the recent Qur’an burnings implicate human rights aside from freedom of expression
The Qur’an burnings that took place over Easter weekend in Sweden led to a surge of anti-Muslim racism and calls for repressive measures. Civil Rights Defenders urges a more nuanced debate that examines the underlying reasons behind these events and the human rights issues at stake.
During the second week of Ramadan, the extreme right-wing politician Rasmus Paludan set out on a tour of Sweden to burn the Qur’an. Paludan’s expressly stated intent behind burning the Muslim holy book was to provoke violence and unrest and, in doing so, to brand Muslims as a violent group. The Qur’an burning rallies, which Paludan received police permits to stage, were deliberately held in areas that have relatively large Muslim populations and have been designated as economically and socially “vulnerable.” These demonstrations sparked counter-protests and in some places led to widespread riots and attacks on civilians, police, and property.
Civil Rights Defenders regards both these events as well as the ensuing reactions with deep concern. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, but at the same time it is not unlimited. Restrictions on freedom of speech exist to safeguard democratic values and principles that would otherwise be eroded – for example, to protect minorities and guarantee their human rights. For this reason, it is important that the Qur’an burnings, whose purpose is to dehumanise and spread hatred against Muslims, be investigated within the context of existing hate crime legislation.
In the wake of the riots, Swedish Muslims have faced a wave of anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia. At all levels of society, including amongst politicians, Muslims have been the subject of generalisations and stereotyping, and depicted as a homogeneous group that acts collectively. Moreover, the unrest has led to political calls for increasingly repressive police powers and demands for tougher measures, longer prison sentences, and a more aggressive police approach toward individuals. Such proposals run the risk of creating significant human rights violations.
Civil Rights Defenders condemns the growing anti-Muslim racism and the repressive measures being put forth. There is no place in Swedish society for Islamophobia, racism, or generalisations of groups based on unfounded perceptions, and such developments can never – under any circumstances – be accepted or allowed to be normalised.
In the ongoing debate, the unrest has also been reduced to an alleged conflict between religion and freedom of expression, as well as the role of the police and their ability to detain individuals. There has been a tendency to describe the riots as irrational, driven by criminal gangs and even foreign influences, and their onset as impulsive, with no basis in deeper political, social, economic, and rights-related issues. Such an approach is both biased as well as short-sighted and risks overlooking important perspectives – perspectives that are necessary to understand the events and thereby ensure that they do not happen again.
An extensive body of research shows that when religious identity is cited or is itself a factor in a political mobilisation, the religious belief itself is, at best, of secondary character.1 Rather, the relevant determinant is the individual’s perception of belonging to a group that is marginalised in comparison to the rest of the population. This perception of “group-based relative deprivation” stems from exposure to violence, discrimination, and socioeconomic inequality, as well as a perceived inability to be able to change one’s situation – in other words, a lack of political influence. Similar conclusions have been drawn in studies examining the onset of riots that are not readily linked to religious identity. For example, discrimination and police profiling were cited as reasons behind the Husby riots in 2013.2
As such, to understand the recent unrest, it has to be examined within the context of the social and economic conditions in which it arose and of the people who participated. Primarily, such an analysis must take into consideration the growing structural Islamophobia in Sweden and the ways in which it is perpetuated.
Swedish Muslims are a vulnerable group whose rights are routinely violated. The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Sw: Brottsförebyggande rådet or BRÅ) routinely publishes hate crime statistics, which show that Islamophobic hate crimes have increased steadily since 2008.3 From 2015-2018, they increased by over 100%.4 According to a 2017 study conducted by Uppsala University’s Center for Multidisciplinary Studies on Racism (Sw: Centrum för Mångvetenskaplig Forskning om Rasism), Muslim mosques and assemblies were the target of assassination attempts on average once per week.5 Figures from the Swedish Equality Ombudsman (Sw: Diskrimineringsombudsmannen) additionally show that the number of reports of discrimination in connection with religion, of which the majority involve Muslims, has increased between 2015-2021.6 Civil Rights Defenders’ own research reveals the use of discriminatory race and ethnic-based profiling by the police against Muslims in the Swedish suburbs.7
Yet it is not in this capacity – as a vulnerable group subjected to threats, violence, and hate crimes – that Swedish Muslims see represented in debates and in Swedish society. Rather, as numerous Swedish studies have highlighted, when Muslims do appear in the media it is all too frequently in a negative context.8 They are often associated with discussions on implementing repressive legislation that suppresses daily Muslim life and renders invisible public expressions of Muslim identity and culture: bans on headscarves, bans on mosques issuing the daily call to prayer, bans on private religious schools, bans on refusing to shake hands with persons of the opposite sex, bans on separate times for men and women at public swimming pools, and mosques being denied building permits.
Simultaneously, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Muslims to convene and organise. This can be seen most recently in the city of Gothenburg’s decision to deny funding to the Ibn Rushd student union despite the group meeting the requirements for funding, according to the National Council of Adult Education (Sw: Folkbildningsrådet).9 The Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society similarly refused to give public funds to the Swedish Young Muslims group. In yet another example, the then-chairperson of the Gothenburg city municipal board cancelled a public panel discussion about the documentary film Burka Songs 2.0, claiming that the panelists were extremists. In other words, the concerns go beyond the growing human rights violations and Islamophobia that Swedish Muslims face today. The problem is also the shrinking space and ever more limited opportunities for Muslims to come together to jointly understand and address these troubling developments.
Civil Rights Defenders calls upon the Swedish government, state agencies, and other public figures to avoid reductive explanations that perpetuate generalisations and stereotypes and put an end to the demands for increasingly restrictive policies. Instead, we encourage leaders and members of society overall to analyse recent events in the context of the underlying factors addressed here and in consideration of all the human rights that Sweden has undertaken to protect – not just freedom of expression.
- See, e.g., Obaidi et al., Group-Based Relative Deprivation Explains Endorsement of Extremism Among Western-Born Muslims, Psychological Science, vol. 30, no. 4, 2019, pp. 595—605; Olivier, R., Jihad and Death: the global appeal of the Islamic State, 2017.
- De los Reyes et al., Bilen brinner… men problemen står kvar: Berättelser om Husbyhändelserna i maj 2013, Stockholm University, 2019.
- BRÅ, Hatbrott 2018 Statistik över polisanmälda brott med identifierade hatbrottsmotiv, 2019.
- CEMFOR, Moskéers och muslimska församlingars utsatthet och säkerhet i Sverige, 2018.
- Diskrimineringsombudsmannen, Statistik 2015—2021: Statistik över anmälningar som inkom till Diskrimineringsombudsmannen 2015-2021, 2022.
- Civil Rights Defenders, Randomly Selected – Race/ethnic Profiling in Sweden, 2017.
- Diskrimineringsombudsmannen, Rapport 2015:1, Representationer, stereotyper och nyhetsvärdering: Rapport från medieanalys om representationer av muslimer i svenska nyheter, 2015.
- Folkbildningsrådet, När tilliten prövas: en studie av studieförbundet Ibn Rushds samhällsbidrag, 2019.