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Political provocations in Sweden

April 20, 2022

A recent outbreak of violence in Sweden has drawn attention to a little-known politician who stages offensive provocations against Muslims. Experts say his rise comes amid a hardening of attitudes towards immigrants.

People burn branches to block a road in Sweden
Plans by a far-right politician to publicly burn the Quran triggered days of rioting across several Swedish citiesImage: Stefan Jerrevang/TT/picture alliance

When far-right Danish-Swedish politician Rasmus Paludan announced he was organizing a series of meetings across Sweden last week during which he planned to burn a copy of the Quran, Islam's holy book, the reaction was intense.

His first rallies were met by counter-protests with demonstrations escalating into riots across a string of cities. These resulted in burned cars, scuffles and arson that left some police and protesters injured.

While governments in the Middle East spoke out against the planned Quran burnings, Swedish police said Monday that some protesters who joined the riots and were suspected of being behind the violent flare-ups were actually linked to criminal gangs targeting Swedish police and society, not Paludan and his stunt.

In an interview with Sweden's Aftonbladet newspaper on Sunday, Swedish Justice Minister Morgan Johansson called Paludan a "right-wing extremist fool, whose only goal is to drive violence and divisions."

Young men burning tires in the street at night
Swedish police say some protestors linked to escalating violence were part of criminal gangs targeting law enforcementImage: TT/picture alliance

Fanning the flames for political gain

In a statement posted by his Stram Kurs (Hard Line) party on Facebook, Paludan said over the weekend he had decided to call off demonstrations in the eastern cities of Linkoping and Norrkoping, both of which saw clashes, because Swedish authorities had, "shown that they are completely incapable of protecting themselves and me."

Some say the days-long unrest played into the hands of Paludan, whose Hard Line party contested the last elections in Denmark in 2019 on an anti-Islam platform but fell just short of the two percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

He is now focusing his attention on neighboring Sweden, where the 40-year-old, who has dual citizenship, plans to stand in September parliamentary elections.

"This is exactly the kind of publicity and violent reaction that Paludan wants so that he can point to it and say: 'this shows what kind of society Sweden has created by being so lax on immigration,'" Anders Widfeldt, a Swedish lecturer in politics at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, told DW.

Far-right politician Rasmus Paludan speaks with reporters in a parking lot
Paludan is an extreme anti-Islam provocateur testing the limits of Sweden and Denmark's tradition of free speechImage: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP

Who is Rasmus Paludan?

Widfeldt, who has researched right-wing movements and populism in Scandinavia, said Paludan previously used the same stunts in Denmark.

He has staged offensive protests against Muslims like tossing a book he claimed was the Quran into the air and letting it fall to the ground or wrapping the book in bacon, often in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations.

The lawyer, who grew up in Denmark, first gained notoriety through a series of online videos in which he made derogatory comments on Islam and its followers as well as Black people, and confronted people with his views in immigrant-dominated neighborhoods.

"Paludan argues this is a legitimate protest against what he thinks is an evil ideology," Widfeldt said. "It ties into ongoing debates in Denmark and Sweden about how far free speech can go and what amounts to legitimate critique and what amounts to an illegitimate provocation."

In 2020, supporters of Paludan burned a Quran in the Swedish city of Malmo, sparking violent protests. Paludan was banned from Belgium for a year, from Sweden for two years and expelled from France after signaling his intention to burn a Quran in Paris.

He was convicted and given a suspended jail term in Denmark in June 2020 for a string of offenses including racism and defamation. The criminal lawyer was disbarred for three years as a result.

"His extreme movement is focused on just one single issue and this is banning Islam and deporting all Muslims," Widfeldt said. "Though if you followed that policy, it would amount to ethnic cleansing."

An imam at a mosque in Sweden
Muslims consider any intentional damage or show of disrespect towards the Quran deeply offensiveImage: Hansson Krister/Aftonbladet/TT/imago images

Hardening attitudes towards immigrants

Experts say the rise of extremists like Paludan has to be seen in the broader context of hardening attitudes towards immigrants in both Denmark and Sweden since the migration crisis of 2015 and 2016, when more than a million people from Africa and the Middle East fled to Europe.

Thousands arrived in the two Nordic countries with Sweden, which has a population of about 10 million, accepting more refugees per capita than any other European country.

"We have a situation where the population has become much more diverse. At the same time, there is a lot of gang violence in Sweden," Anders Hellstrom, a specialist in nationalist and populist movements and a senior lecturer at Malmo University told DW.

"This trope of linking crime and immigration and portraying Sweden as a place of violent immigrants — like Paludan does — is now quite common rhetoric. Russian state-sponsored media have long been peddling it."

In 2017, former US President Donald Trump made an infamous remark about Sweden during a campaign-style rally, suggesting the country's history of welcoming refugees was at the root of a violent attack that actually never happened.

At the time it sparked outrage in Sweden but experts say that link is now more widely accepted.

Infografik Flüchtlinge Quoten Europa ENG

A 'mainstreaming of extremism'

The backlash against immigration has emboldened the rise of right-wing populism with even mainstream parties picking up far-right talking points and taking a tougher stance on migrants.

Denmark's 2019 elections made clear that the far-right Danish People's Party's anti-immigration agenda had been adopted by several mainstream parties on the left and the right.

In Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration political party with neo-Nazi roots, is now jockeying to enter government in upcoming September elections. The party wants many of those who have been granted asylum in Sweden in recent years to leave and has called the spread of Islam the country's "biggest threat."

"Once fringe, parties like the Sweden Democrats are all trying to attract the common man and saying 'we are super normal,'" Hellstrom said.

"So we're seeing a mainstreaming of extremism where it's normal to talk about Muslims and immigrants in a way that would have been considered extreme two decades ago. Someone like a Paludan then needs to find an even more extreme message to be heard."

Young Swedes mill in the street outside a cafe in Gotland, Sweden
Once a welcoming place for refugees, Sweden is worried about rising immigration and strains on its welfare systemImage: Martin von Krogh/Getty Images

'Not everything is going down the drain'

As for Rasmus Paludan's political future in Sweden, experts point out he does not yet have the number of signatures needed to secure his candidacy. Unlike Denmark, Sweden also has a higher four percent threshold to enter parliament.

Anders Widfeldt explained that Paludan's efforts to build a political platform in Sweden had also suffered a setback after revelations by a Danish tabloid that he had been involved in sex chats with young boys. Paludan has claimed it was innocent banter.

Some say it's important to take a more realistic view of developments in recent years.

"Since 2015, we have an extreme polarization in society. But we have regressive as well as progressive forces. You have a Rasmus Paludan but you also have a Greta Thunberg and the 'Fridays for Future' movement. There are reports of immigrants integrating into the labor market," Hellstrom said.

"It's important to have a nuanced picture and not believe that everything is going down the drain."

Right-wing on the rise in Sweden?

Edited by Jon Shelton