The wildfire of Islamophobia is burning through Sweden

The wildfire of Islamophobia is burning through Sweden
The burning of the Quran by a Danish far-right politician is indicative of the tide of institutionalised anti-Muslim hate that is marring the once warm and welcoming Sweden, writes Khaled A. Beydoun.
5 min read
31 Jan, 2023
Far-right Danish-Swedish politican Rasmus Paludan, a controversial figure in Sweden, stages Quran burnings in Muslim neighbourhoods as part of his political campaign, on 14 May, 2022. [Getty

Sweden once stood apart as an oasis of inclusivity within a European landscape ravaged by xenophobia and racial populism.

It was a society where multiculturalism was welcomed, and huddled masses fleeing war-torn nations brought colour to the monochrome landscape. For many years, the Scandinavian nation took in the most refugees per capita, and a record high of 162,877 asylees in 2015.

Against the racial and religious grain rooted across the continent, Sweden remained a defiant alternative to the Islamophobic climate gripping France, and the nativist currents raging through Italy, Belgium, Denmark, and the other white walls of fortress Europe.

The comparative warmth that characterised Swedish immigration policy, and its celebration of the cultures newcomers and Swedes of colour injected, was frozen by the gradual rise of the right-wing Sweden Democrats.

"Paludan’s charade was meant to push Muslims towards the sort of violence that would confirm his hateful views, and more importantly, justify the hardline policies swelling around and against them"

Their climb in power has been steady since 2010, with the right-wing party claiming more and more seats each election, with 2022 being a major flashpoint in their political impact.

This rise was, in great part, fuelled by the transnational Islamophobia that drove the political discourses in Sweden’s neighbours to the south. In Denmark, hateful discourses are fanned by a different kind of fireman, Rasmus Paludan, who fixated on exporting Islamophobia to Sweden.

On Saturday, January 21st, Paludan made Sweden the stage of his new plot.

He took court in Stockholm, directly in front of the Turkish embassy, with a green copy of the Holy Quran in one hand and a megaphone in the other. From the latter, he spewed familiar slurs against Islamic “backwards civilization” and Muslim “intruders,” echoing the bigoted platitudes of his far-right Stram Kurs Party in Denmark.

He held Islam’s Holy Book high - for the hundreds standing before him, bystanders rubbernecking by, and the cameras that would disseminate his act to millions.  Like he did on many occasions before, Paludan set the Quran ablaze.

In doing so, he set Muslims in Sweden and beyond into a burning frenzy, hoping to push them to rage and riot. Days after, a copycat Quran burning took place in Holland, where Islamophobic sentiments remain strong.

Paludan’s charade was meant to push Muslims towards the sort of violence that would confirm his hateful views, and more importantly, justify the hardline policies swelling around and against them.

These policies are already in full swing in Sweden, introduced by the emergent Sweden Democrats that Paludan not only rhetorically supports, but after years of “burning Quran tours” and fuelling hate, has directly strengthened.

The messages his acts plant into the heart of the Swedish political discourse are far more dangerous than the acts themselves.

As I write in my new book, The New Crusades, this is the wildfire of “dialectical Islamophobia in Europe, where white supremacist movements mixed with Islamophobic tones travel ferociously across borders” that are porous to white hatemongers like Paludan, but deadly for Africans and Arabs, and increasingly, Muslims.

Paludan setting the Quran ablaze, as he has done in the heart of Sweden’s Muslim communities before, is hardly an aberrant act. Dismissing it as a deviant performance begging for attention that is best ignored disregards the heuristic strategy driving Paludan.

His actions send a clear message: To the public. To voters. To politicians. To fresh populist movements who see opportunity in the Islamophobia he peddles in the heart of Muslim enclaves and in front of Muslim embassies.

Swedish voters subscribing to Paludan’s platitudes that “Muslim immigration is ruining Sweden” and “Muslims are violent criminals” are listening. And even more consequently, the Sweden Democrats are heeding his word and transforming it into policy.

"The old Sweden is burning. Like the pages of the Quran that laid flat in front of the Turkish embassy until it, too, is no longer recognisable"

Paludan’s ideological imprint is scorched across Islamophobic policies introduced in the last several years. Measures ushered in by the Sweden Democrats, who are trading the warm inclusivity of the old Sweden for the fortress walls that enclose the remainder of the continent.

Where Paludan uses city squares and sidewalks to perform his crude act of explicit hate, the Sweden Democrats push legislation within the formal halls of parliament that institutionalises his anti-Muslim sentiments. This is how the rage of private Islamophobia feeds state-sponsored Islamophobia.

Policies such as shutting down schools operated by Muslims in Sweden, hardline immigration approaches, and stripping Muslim children from immigrant parents are gaining steam in Sweden. Yet, with the rising appeal of the Sweden Democrats and the encore performances of their public lobbyist Paludan, these measures may just be the start of more dangerous fires still to come.

During a visit to Sweden in November, where I addressed Muslim leaders and community members, the connection between Paludan and the Sweden Democrats was focal. “Many Muslims are considering leaving the country,” shared a young Muslim father, a second-generation citizen concerned about the fate of his mosque and the future of his children.


“The old Sweden is no more,” was a common echo among Muslim Swedes.

Liberal principles like free speech have been disfigured into a weapon, rising secularism wielded as a potent anti-Muslim ideology coming from the left, and a swelling right-wing parroting the diatribes of Islamophobes have left Muslims entrapped inside the walls of a nation that caved in on them.

A nation that they no longer recognise.

The old Sweden is burning. Like the pages of the Quran that laid flat in front of the Turkish embassy until it, too, is no longer recognisable.

Another Quran lies charred at the feet of a new sort of arsonist, who is slowly moulding Sweden in his hateful image.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor and public intellectual, and author of the forthcoming book The New Crusades: Islamophobia and the Global War on Muslims.

Follow him on Instagram and Twitter: @khaledbeydoun

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.