No, Burning Qurans in the Street Isn’t “Part of Our Democracy”

In Sweden, far-right militants burned Qurans in the street, sparking days of rioting. Mainstream politicians’ focus on denouncing the counterprotesters showed how far the country has to go in admitting the reality of Islamophobia.

City buses burn in Malmö following a demonstration of Rasmus Paludan and his extreme-right Stram Kurs party. (JOHAN NILSSON/TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images)

Over Easter weekend, Quran burnings organized by Danish far-right provocateur Rasmus Paludan led to several days of rioting in Sweden. The serial stunts were staged in neighborhoods well known for their diverse communities with large Muslim populations, whom they deliberately sought to offend. Counterprotesters reacted by throwing stones at Paludan and burning police cars.

Videos of the torched vehicles — and reports of three counterprotesters being shot — took over news cycles and social media feeds over subsequent days. The language of a “warzone” became ubiquitous, with one police officer interviewed saying of the rioters, “These are terrorists, not counterprotesters.”

Such scenes have become sadly familiar in the Nordic countries in the five years since Paludan first formed his political party, Stram Kurs (Hard Line), in Denmark. He has consistently failed to gain political office in that country, and today seems on track to fail in Sweden, too; the Easter weekend provocations were an attempt to drum up support for his new party Stram Kurs Sweden, which has just 170 followers on Facebook. Yet, while it seems that Paludan will continue to flop electorally, what really matters is what the riots and the Islamophobia that triggered them have to say about Sweden.

One lesson is the long-standing potential of radical-right politics to capitalize on issues in neighborhoods wrought by racist stigma and neoliberal restructuring. The second is the Swedish political mainstream’s prompt concern to claim that these events are really explained by the deviant cultures and values of non-Westerners.

In the days since the riots, a consensus has emerged that those involved in violence against police were not legitimate counterprotesters but organized members of criminal networks or even foreign agents. But even if such claims are borne out, they must not distract from the growing far-right influence behind the stunt — and the simmering social conditions behind the anger the Quran burnings provoked. Indeed, with the political response to this episode we have seen that there is no longer room to propose social solutions to social problems. This fall’s Swedish elections are instead set to be dominated by a cocktail of anti-immigration politics and tough-on-crime posturing.

Who Is Rasmus Paludan?

When I spoke with Paludan at one of his demonstrations in central Stockholm last summer, I was shocked by his ability to probe and provoke. The first thing he asked me when I approached his heavily policed demonstration was whether I want to play catch with the Quran with him. I declined.

Paludan’s demonstrations follow a standard formula. The aspiring politician first selects a neighborhood well known for its Muslim community and stigmatized in international media as a “no-go zone.” He announces on his party’s Facebook page that he will be burning a Quran or possibly drawing a caricature of the prophet Muhammad. Speaking into a cellphone-camera livestream once he has arrived at his demonstration, Paludan and a handful of supporters rant about the dangers of Islam to the West. He chants homophobic and racist taunts at counterprotesters positioned hundreds of meters away behind lines of police. Since Paludan lives under 24/7 security (funded by the Danish state) following numerous assassination attempts, he is always pictured wearing a bulletproof vest.

Before founding his own party, Paludan bounced around between various others. A former University of Copenhagen Law lecturer, he got his start speaking at PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) rallies before joining and being ejected from Denmark’s New Right Party. In 2018, he ran for elections in Denmark for the first time under the Stram Kurs banner. Though he just missed the 2 percent electoral threshold for parliament, he did take enough votes to get state financing of his campaign.

Since then, this provocateur has been working on expanding his limited influence. The day I spoke with Paludan, he was supposed to be giving a speech just up the street at an Alternative for Sweden (AfS) event. But earlier that week, allegations emerged that he had sexual conversations with children online. Those accusations of pedophilia were enough for even the AfS extremists to declare Paludan himself a no-go zone, prompting him to form Stram Kurs Sweden instead.

Marginalized Neighborhoods

When I asked Paludan how he chooses where to burn a Quran, he responded, “If there’s a reasonable question whether the Danish government has complete power in that neighborhood, that would be a reason for making a statement.”

Such claims draw on a long tradition of anti-immigrant groups exploiting the stigma of marginalized neighborhoods. Sweden’s first race riots, according to Jennifer Mack in her book The Construction of Equality, were a product of similar nationalist provocation. The raggare were anti-immigrant youth gangs, known for their penchant for vintage cars, most active in the 1970s and 1980s. Street fights between Syrian immigrants and the raggare stemmed from a comparable “campaign of provocation” in which “the raggare [claimed] that Syriacs walked around Södertälje wearing T-shirts bearing the text ‘We’re going to take over the town!’” The Syrian community was violently targeted by these nationalists for their purported lawlessness and failures to integrate. It’s a narrative about enclaved immigrant communities that still lingers on today.

What distinguishes Paludan’s provocations from the 1970s raggare is, first, how today’s nationalists defer to the state for the actual exercise of violence. The clashes in Sweden were between the angry youth of these neighborhoods and police — not the neo-Nazi skinheads of the 1990s. The second distinction is that today’s provocations are meticulously documented. Videos of full-on riots in southern Sweden and Copenhagen produced by Paludan have circulated internationally. These scenes open up a crucial political space for the Right to link anti-immigration themes to calls for law and order.

Mainstream Reaction

The Swedish state and media have already co-opted the radical right’s message that the riots owe to Muslims’ unwillingness to integrate. In the liberal daily Göteborgs-Posten, one commentator writes that the violent counterprotester is the

eternal stranger and has no desire at all to shoulder the responsibility that each new generation must take in order for society to grow successfully. You do not respect the societal norms that exist here, but impose on those around you the norms you prefer at the moment.

In this way of posing things, the riots stem from an ingratitude toward what the Swedish welfare state has offered “second-generation immigrants.” The lazy immigrants are not willing to give anything back.

This claim is, however, also made against the backdrop of Sweden having the fastest-growing inequality in the OECD and a welfare state bled dry daily by private interests. A failure to reckon with the alienating power of these cuts in targeted neighborhoods like Rinkeby and Rosengård has led to the embrace of the so-called value of values as a catchall response. Media scholar Gavin Titley calls this an “exclusionary force exploiting the ‘hierarchies of belonging’ patterned out by the immigration apparatus . . . to inject further urgency, conspiracy and pathology into the threats which menace the nation.”

Sweden’s center-left government has also portrayed the counterprotesters as assailants against Swedish values. Interviewed as the unrest in Norrköping escalated, justice minister Morgan Johansson said: “Sweden is a democracy, and in a democracy fools also have freedom of speech. You have to accept that; it is part of living in a democracy. Those who attack the police are criminal perpetrators. There is no other way to deal with them than to put up a hard fight.” Prime minister Magdalena Andersson echoed, “The indiscriminate violence was directed not only at the police but at the democratic values ​​of our entire society.” She went on to insist that “the police will grow and get more tools.”

This is precisely the interpretation of events that Paludan counts on when he douses a holy book in lighter fluid and lights a match. His party platform is built on the notion that non-Westerners are incompatible with Nordic democracy. When the far right sets the terms of the equation, the only solution for a purported democratic deficit is prison time or the outright expulsion of these “eternal strangers.”

Democracy for Whom?

Nooshi Dadgostar, a hero among the Left for her gutsy protection of rent controls last autumn, sadly joined the chorus of Swedish liberal politicians demanding more police on the streets. Again, any voice for social solutions for social problems has been silenced. The Social Democrats’ policy package in response, released on Friday, is heavy on discipline and light on relief, despite the lip service paid to breaking segregation and long-term unemployment.

There have been only very few attempts to refute the delegitimization of these protests as “foreign interventions” or the products of second-generation migrant ungratefulness. The Swedish government’s framing of these events only mirrors Paludan’s — reinforcing the radical right’s rhetorically powerful but toothless efforts to link immigration and crime.

In response to the riots in Stockholm back in 2013, one commentator asked, “How could this occur in a country known for its developed democracy, egalitarianism, and well-functioning integration policy model?” Yet few could have expected the speed at which the welfare state would itself be dismantled — or the grip anti-immigrant politics would come to have over Swedish politics. This cocktail has left the residents of Sweden’s peripheral neighborhoods to bear both the brunt of socioeconomic deprivation and the racializing stigma of living “outside of Swedish democracy.”

Reflecting on Paris’s 2005 riots, Alain Bertho wrote in Le temps des émeutes, “That we live in the age of riots means that we do no longer — or still do not — live in the age of democracy.” Again in the Swedish case, the riot demands not more police but a reevaluation of the structural conditions that brought a democracy to the point of rioting — a situation where socially excluded young people join gangs while parties included in mainstream democracy advocate for those same young peoples’ mass deportation.

The riot reveals the potency of ethnonationalism’s capitalization on neoliberalism’s poverty and segregation — stretching from the 1970s raggare to the Quran burnings of today. And ultimately, it cannot do any more damage to our democracy than has been done already.