There was a joke some time ago that suggested American flags were being burned so often on the streets of Tehran that canny vendors had taken to selling them with lighters. Today it feels possible to apply the same dark joke to Scandinavia, although you’d need to replace the Stars and Stripes with the Koran.
Over this summer there have been several public burnings of Islam’s most holy of books in Swedish cities such as Malmö and Stockholm, and at least 10 burnings in cities and towns in Denmark.
The idea that copies of the Koran are being openly incinerated—sometimes filled with bacon, a food forbidden in Islam—in these most liberal of countries may initially come as a shock. After all, Scandinavia is renowned as being a place that doesn’t really “do” crazy or nasty extremism. Most outsiders suppose this part of Europe to be the home of sane, consensual, and sensible politics.
Unfortunately, the events of this summer indicate that Scandinavia is far from immune to the cancer of the far right. (In fact, the disease has been present here for decades.) However, its recent manifestation in the form of Koran burning is not necessarily a sign that countries such as Denmark and Sweden are keenly embracing such inflammatory acts. Instead, these burnings must be seen as the direct product of a Scandinavian liberalism that is so tolerant of free expression that it will allow these types of demonstrations to occur, even though many other Western countries have banned them on the grounds that they incite religious hatred.
A century ago, the far right in Scandinavia was the preserve of white men who had swallowed the same social-Darwinist Kool-Aid as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. They preached racial purity and authoritarianism. Fans of the movie and the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will recall that the legacy of far-right membership is an important plot driver.
When the Nazis did invade countries such as Norway and Denmark, they found enough fellow travelers who were willing to do their bidding, which, to be fair, they found in every country they conquered. Unlike in Germany, these characters were hardly in the mainstream of 1930s Scandinavian politics, and it was only the presence of Nazis that enabled them to come to power. As soon as the war ended, they were booted out, and often executed. Since the war, the most atrocious expression of far-right extremism in Scandinavia was the mass murder of 77 people in 2011, carried out by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway. He wrote a manifesto that was replete with anti-Islamic screeds.
These burnings must be seen as the direct product of Scandinavian liberalism.
However, what is interesting about those behind the current Koran burnings is that they are often not the types with whom their antecedents on the far right would have shared a bottle of aquavit. Among them is Salwan Momika, an Iraqi refugee, who stomped on and then burned a copy of the Koran outside the largest mosque in Stockholm on June 28. Just in case he hadn’t expressed his blatant Islamophobia strongly enough, he then filled the book with slices of bacon. On September 3, he was at it again, this time in the Swedish city of Malmö, where his actions sparked a riot, during which vehicles were set on fire and police were pelted with stones.
While Momika’s motivation would appear to stem from his membership in extremist Christian militias while in Iraq, other Scandinavian Koran burners hail from the more traditional shores of the far-right fringe. The leading light—or, perhaps, lighter—is one Rasmus Paludan, who holds dual Danish-Swedish citizenship and is the head of a far-right Danish party called Hard Line. Paludan has been publicly burning copies of the Koran in Denmark and Sweden since last year, and has been banned from entering Britain since he announced he was going to do the same stunt in the northern city of Wakefield, which has a Muslim population of just over 11,000.
Paludan’s most notorious burning took place in January near the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm, an act that had huge consequences for Sweden’s bid to join NATO. “Those who allow such blasphemy in front of our embassy can no longer expect our support for their NATO membership,” said Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, as the head of a NATO country, has veto power.
The almost entirely negative worldwide response to the Koran burnings raises an obvious question: Why do Scandinavian countries allow such inflammatory protests to take place? In Sweden, they go so far as to issue licenses to allow these acts, and even afford the Koran burners police protection.
The reason lies in the Scandinavian approach to freedom of speech and expression, which is far closer to being absolute than in many other Western societies. As Susie Jessen, a member of the right-wing Denmark Democrats party told Reuters, “I would never burn books, but I will fight for other people to have the right to do it.”
As a result, Scandinavia finds itself in a situation in which it is tolerating an intolerant right-wing minority that is inflaming a section of society that is intolerant to religious criticism.
With there being little chance that the authorities can calm either side, it seems that the only option is to pass new laws that would criminalize certain acts as being incitement to religious hatred. Denmark and Sweden are both considering changing their freedom-of-speech laws, but until they do so, we are likely to see many more Korans burned.
Ultimately, as is always the case, the question must be asked: Who benefits? In the case of Sweden, it is tempting to draw a line straight to the Kremlin, which would have the most to gain from the country’s failing to join NATO. With some reports that Momika is being partly funded by an individual with connections to the Russian media, speculation of a Putin-backed conspiracy is not completely outlandish.