During a protest in Stockholm over the weekend, Rasmus Paludan, a Danish-Swedish far-right extremist, burned a copy of the Quran in front of the Turkish embassy. In response, condemnations across the Muslim world, from Turkey to Saudi Arabia, from Qatar to the UAE, from Malaysia to Pakistan, ensued. The resulting controversy asks serious questions around freedom of expression against the backdrop of an already tense relationship between Sweden and Turkey. It’s important to clarify precisely what has happened, and what needs to happen from here.
Mr Paludan is a classic agent provocateur, whose whole point in protesting in front of the Turkish embassy was designed to induce a response, at a time when Turkey and Sweden are in negotiations about the latter’s entry into the Nato alliance. For Mr Paludan, it was the location, far more than the content, that is the point — and it is location that this whole episode was about.
Far-right extremists in Sweden are well aware that their country has an extremely liberal protest regime. The process is simple: anyone wishing to hold a protest should request permission from the police, who are generally obliged to issue it. According to authorities, there are only two limitations that might be imposed on the protest. The first relates to safety; if the police feel that a dire infringement of public order is an issue, or safety at the gathering cannot be fully assured (and thus the police cannot properly secure the protest), they can deny permission. That emphasis also explains their presence at the weekend protest; and is why, authorities say, the police were unable to deny permission. Such is how freedom of expression is interpreted in Sweden; an interpretation that is not shared across the board in Europe writ large, nor in the West more generally, where there are other legal grounds for denying protests or marches, including the suspicion of hate speech or incitement.
The irony is that alongside this kind of protest regime in Sweden is a slew of other legislation that forbids “agitation against a population group” — that is hate speech. But even if the police suspect that protesters will engage in hate speech, permission for demonstrations must still go forward. Protesting, however, doesn’t provide anyone immunity from criminal liability — and if protest leaders engage in hate speech, they can be prosecuted thereafter.
Far-right extremists know this, which is why the likes of Mr Paludan are careful not to cross legal red lines by engaging in speech against Muslims as a group, but rather are very specific and careful to focus on Islam as a religion. Hitherto, Swedish courts have failed to see this as a deft way to defeat the spirit of the law, while maintaining its letter.
So what might be done now? There are several issues that ought to be addressed. The first, thankfully, senior Swedish politicians did over the weekend: they condemned the burning, recognising it for what it was — a disrespectful provocation. But, given the situation at hand, it would have been appropriate for those same senior politicians to have taken the opportunity to descend on to the counter-protest that had been arranged, in order to show support for those who rejected the move and solidarity with the Muslim community. This is because it’s not simply about the Quran, and what it means to Muslims, but about the future of a minority community that already has concerns surrounding bigotry against it. This is also about the future of Sweden’s body politic, which has seen the mainstreaming of parts of the far right, similar across the European continent. Swedish politicians need to be transparent about what individuals such as Mr Paludan and his stunts represent: a furthering of far-right populism.
The second is for the authorities to consider that, even if they consistently hold to the doctrine that they cannot withhold permission for such protests, they can withhold permission for particular locations. There is already precedent for this. Protest sizes were forcibly limited during the early months of Covid-19, due to public health concerns, although they were not banned altogether. Locations are even less problematic than that. The likes of Mr Paludan are mocking Sweden’s tradition of free speech in order to demonise Muslim communities writ large, by carrying out these Quran burnings in front of mosques, Muslim schools, and embassies representing Muslim-majority countries.
Freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to hold protests absolutely anywhere in any public space — otherwise, the law would stipulate that protests be secured inside publicly owned buildings, such as parliament or ministries. Of course, that’s not the case at all — and when it is abundantly clear that these stunts are meant to provoke upheaval and discord, while simultaneously targeting a minority community, the police should feel more at liberty to simply deny such locations, while not needing to deny protests altogether.
Mr Paludan and his fellow travellers are looking for ways to further provoke, and it is important that they not be given any victory in this regard — on the contrary, Swedish public figures must seize the opportunity to turn his stunt against him.