Stockholm’s Defense of the Indefensible - Islamophobia and State Complicity
The truth is that when it comes to Islamophobic incidents within Europe including pre-Brexit England, history suggests that there have been efforts to institutionalize freedom of expression.
Yet again, blasphemy of the highest order was committed in Sweden. The vile act of desecrating a holy book took place under the watchful eye of the Stockholm government as the police stood as silent bystanders. The decision to offend the sentiments of billions of people across the world and justify such hooliganism under the garb of ‘freedom of speech’ is a grand example of Swedish state complicity. The manner in which the horrific and barbaric act took place was equally chilling, as the Swedish police stood to prevent angry Muslim protesters from descending onto the perpetrator, yet refrained from arresting and preventing Salwan Momika, an Iraqi immigrant, from desecrating the Holy Quran.
Perhaps the continuity of Islamophobia and defamation of Islam in Sweden is indicative of a mindset deeply ingrained into the political system. It is noteworthy that this vile act of desecrating the Holy Quran took place just months after far-right extremist Rasmus Paludan of the ‘Straight Course’ party burnt the holy book unabashedly and with impunity. Back then, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson deemed it to be a controversial, albeit legal act which angered the Muslim world as further evidence of Sweden’s hypocritical stance on tackling Islamophobia was exposed. Fast forward to July 2023, then the same Prime Minister is seen as both criticizing the act and the subsequent attack on the Swedish embassy in Iraq while also stating that "just because some things are legal, they are not necessarily appropriate."
The legality argument was taken a step further when NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the incident was objectionable and offensive but not illegal. This lack of cognizance is glaring and reprehensible as it unfolded despite the fact that the EU condemned the Islamophobic act while the highest authority of the Catholic Church Pope Francis rejected the idea that offensive protests should be allowed in the name of freedom of speech. The tacit approval from Stoltenberg and Kristersson provides fertile ground for far-right extremists to carry out harrowing acts of blasphemy and be left unaccounted for. It is also noteworthy that Momika was arrested in Sweden for agitation against an ‘ethnic’ group despite the fact that Islam or Muslims are not an ethnicity or a monolithic entity.
It also took a united, robust, and stern response from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to eventually elicit a Swedish condemnation. The UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) also slammed the act as disrespectful to Muslims who, despite mentioning the importance of freedom of expression, considered the desecration of religious symbols to be unacceptable. It is, hence, plausible to assume that the threat from Turkiye pressing against Stockholm’s NATO membership prompted a condemnation as Kristersson headed off to the White House to prevent a foreign policy crisis of immense proportion for Sweden amid the Ukraine war.
As a result, the question arises: would have Stockholm budged from its tacit approval of Islamophobia had a diplomatic outcry from the Muslim world, the EU, and the UNAOC not taken place? Additionally, would Sweden’s sudden change of stance on the desecration of the Holy Quran and its "freedom of speech" rationale become a permanent fixture, or a tactical ploy to avoid censure and castigation internationally? The truth is that when it comes to Islamophobic incidents within Europe including pre-Brexit England, history suggests that there have been efforts to institutionalize freedom of expression, which includes blasphemous acts against other religions and justify savage acts as a constitutional right for private citizens.
Here lies the problem. Recall that when the Satanic Verses controversy engulfed the United Kingdom in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the British government adamantly defended satirical demagogue Salman Rushdie and considered his 1989 offensive publication to be within constitutional rights. There was a callous defense of Rushdie, his ideas, and his horrific references, which misconstrued Quranic references to suit his so-called magical realism rationale. The subsequent response from across the Muslim world ranging from Pakistan to Turkiye and Muslims protesting within the UK in cities such as Bradford were demonized by the British government as uncivilized and uncouth radicalized elements while Rushdie was unjustifiably knighted. A diplomatic furor over the publication of the Satanic Verses also resulted in the suspension of bilateral relations between Iran and the United Kingdom in 1989. When the pressure intensified on the United Kingdom, London opted to keep Rushdie in protective custody while also requesting him to make less noise as the country sought to navigate through a diplomatic storm.
Rushdie, however, has remained a largely free man in the absence of any prosecution whether he has resided in the UK or elsewhere. The rationale presented by European states, both former and contemporary, is that blasphemy laws do not exist beyond defamation of Christianity (also rarely enforced) as was the case in the UK back in the late 1980s. Hence, the existence of a legal cover allows for Islamophobic bigots to commit terrible acts with impunity, which is precisely what happened in Sweden in 2023.
Expecting justice from a system that enables Islamophobia to take place unabated is unrealistic and a fact that needs to be acknowledged by Muslim communities and countries across the world. Violence will never be the answer, but economic boycotts and sustained diplomatic pressure to ensure that such acts are not repeated need to be the standard course of action. One thing, which is evident, is that countries such as Sweden will continue to defend the indefensible and offend Muslim sentiments.
This constitutes a brazen violation of human rights.