Sweden is a country famous for providing a safe haven for refugees from Muslim-majority countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In terms of taking in refugees per capita, Sweden is third in the world after Canada and Australia. This isn’t enough to convince many Muslims in the country of its good intentions.
Counter-demonstrations — that have in some instances descended into mob violence — have taken place in response to planned Qur’an burnings and anti-immigration protests that recently took place in Swedish cities with significant Muslim communities. The perception that Sweden’s government is inherently ‘Islamophobic’ for allowing these provocative events to take place is gaining traction.
It is perhaps an expected reaction. But it is also a golden opportunity for Muslim leaders in the West to step up – and empower their communities – to work together with the government and other religious communities to marginalize these self-declared provocateurs.
First on the list of these provocateurs is anti-Muslim Danish politician Rasmus Paludan, leader of the far-right Stram Kurs (Hard Line) Party. He organized the Qur’an burnings and anti-immigration demonstrations that took place in a number of cities in Sweden last weekend.
Paludan has a track record of organising such demonstrations. He caused chaos in the city of Viborg, Denmark in 2019 when he allegedly burned a Qur’an and defaced it. In 2020, Paludan attempted to do the same in Arhus, Denmark. In response, a 52-year-old Muslim attempted to stab Paludan, forcing police to intervene and shoot the assailant in the leg. It is these kinds of reactions Rasmus Paludan and others like him are banking on.
Far-right and anti-immigrant supporters are currently observing the riots Paludan provoked with satisfaction because they lend credence to the notion that all Muslims are radical extremists. This is a response to Islamists who instigate riots to present Islam and Muslims as willing to engage in violence against those who blaspheme against their religion and show Swedes that their Muslim neighbors require special treatment.
With this strategy, Islamists are ironically enough, appealing to a bigotry of low expectations. They promote the notion that to prevent Muslims from engaging in violence, the government must prevent anything that offends them from taking place. This is of course, far from the truth, but the implication is, when counter demonstrations or riots take place, and there is violence, the public will be less inclined to believe Islam is a religion of peace.
Moderate reform Muslims must challenge both the non-Muslim provocateurs and the Islamists in their communities. They must change their community’s response to acts of provocations.
Western democracies simply do not have blasphemy laws.
The right to offend is a right everyone enjoys in Western democracies. There are no limits to how offensive you can be as long as whatever you say or do is within the law. Typically, this means no direct incitement to violence.
The Qur’an is the holiest book in Islam and what all Muslims believe is the word of Allah (God). Burning it is legal, but it is not necessarily the ethical thing to do. Muslims can peacefully make this case – while simultaneously challenging and condemning the minority of Muslims that use violence to intimidate their neighbors.
Responsible Muslims can argue that just because someone has a right to do something does not mean it is the right thing to do. And when making this argument, they can enlist the help of non-Muslims to carry the message – thereby strengthening intercommunal relations.
Such efforts will counter Islamists who promote the notion that the West is at war with Islam and Muslims. When successful, these efforts will remove the incentive for anti-Islam provocateurs to keep burning Qur’ans.
There are of course many Muslims in the West that accept the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of belief. Indeed, the fact that they choose the West as the place to emigrate to is testament to the rights and freedoms they enjoy.
Free speech is not conditional on what Islamists demand, but rather it is a principle that threatens them and their ideology. It is therefore paramount that it is protected. However, this is not a problem that is unique to Muslims.
What can Muslim leaders in the west realistically do when someone organises a Qur’an burning event? They need to acknowledge that for many in their congregations in the West, freedom of speech may lead to feelings of personal attack. But this is not always the intention.
Islam is a religion; it is not a person and therefore does not have the same rights a person does. So, while Islam can be critiqued and challenged, Muslims have a duty upon themselves to counter criticism through words.
To do this, Muslim leaders must engage in battle of ideas — not the street fights the far-right and Islamists are hoping for.
The underlying message Muslim leaders can convey to their followers is that if you act illegally against something legal, you weaken your case when arguing against something immoral.
This is the Gordian knot Muslim leaders in the West must cut.
Wasiq Wasiq is a journalist specializing in defense and terrorism. You can follow him on Twitter: @WasiqUK
April 22, 2022 Note: This article has been updated to report that the riots took place in response to planned burnings of Qur’ans.