By Qamar Bashir
When Sweden authorized Salwan Momika to burn a copy of the Holy Quran in front of the Stockholm Mosque on June 26th, 2023, under police protection, worldwide outcry poured in. The extremist’s provocative behavior coincided with Eid al-Adha, one of the largest Islamic religious festivals observed by Muslims around the world. The Islamic world, including Pakistan, Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Senegal, Morocco, and Mauritania, condemned the “crime” of burning a Quran copy. The United States, for its part, branded the behavior as “deeply disrespectful”.
However, this was an isolated phenomenon, the Sweden animosity for Islam dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Swedish Empire expanded along with its military prowess and dangerous religious doctrines. It was a Catholic kingdom at first, but after abolishing Catholicism in 1665, it became a Protestant country in the 16th century. Muslims were compared with Catholics by the Swedish monarchs, who labeled them as uneducated and adversaries of the “true Christian religion.” Following the civil war, the empire lost territory and financial dominance, with the Ottoman Empire rising politically, militarily, and, most importantly, religiously. To keep the Ottomans at bay, the Swedish government was forced to make concessions to them, allowing Muslims and Jews to practice their faith within Sweden.
This forced tolerance lasted until the nineteenth century, when Sweden regained political, economical, and military strength. The Social Democratic Party, which was founded to unite Sweden and promote nationalism, laid the groundwork for Orientalist studies, which are defined as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, embodying, and producing a stereotypical view of Islam and the Eastern world, depicting the religion as inferior to the Swedes’ Christianity.”
Sweden adopted multicultural policy following World War II, in response to an inflow of refugees. Nonetheless, several religions, particularly Islam, were portrayed more poorly than the dominant framework. According to a 1990 study, 65% of Swedish people had negative views toward Muslims, 2% had positive feelings, and the rest were indecisive. Approximately 88% of Swedes who rejected Islam stated that practicing Islam was incompatible with democracy. In addition, 62% of Swedes equate the Islamic veil, or hijab, with female tyranny. An surge in Islamophobic hate crimes demonstrates how misinformation has spread following the September 11, 2001, attacks.
In the previous 20 years, right-wing politics has gotten stronger, with ultranationalist and neo-Nazi emotions giving way to Islamophobic and xenophobic beliefs. On September 11, 2022, the Sweden Democrats finally won the majority of parliamentary seats they had sought since their inception in 1988, “marking a new far-right surge in Europe.” They will almost certainly continue to battle for Islamophobic and anti-immigrant policies, which have prompted many left-wing parties to adopt tight immigration policies.
The report “Islamophobia in Sweden: National Report 2022” provides an overview of rapidly increasing Islamophobia in the broader Swedish context, including increased arbitrary securitization of Muslim civil society groups and organizations, as well as increased anti-Muslim radicalization in online spaces and platforms. Islamophobic discourses are strongly embedded in mainstream political parties and media outlets, urging for increasingly harsh actions against Muslim communities. In the spring of 2022, the leader of the Christian Democratic Party called for police to shoot more “Islamists” in response to rioting in response to an anti-Muslim farright Danish extremist burning the Quran.
Muslims are increasingly shying away from public life in response to widespread accusations of extremism and a lack of political allies. Islamophobic news sites and media outlets are now getting governmental subsidies meant to assist independent media outlets. Meanwhile, due to personal security concerns and usually skewed and hostile media coverage of Muslim organizations in civil society are finding it increasingly difficult to find people ready to act as their representatives.
Some governments in Europe have also passed legislation that discriminates against Muslims in the name of combating extremism, in order to get the excuse to close mosques in France and Austria, and the prohibition of new minaret construction in Switzerland. In Denmark, children born into immigrant, typically Muslim communities, dubbed ghettos by the Danish government, must be removed from their families for 35 hours each week in order to learn Danish values. Austrian and French administrations have designated Islamist Separatism and political Islam as national security problems without properly defining those terms or needing a connection to the use or encouragement of violence.
These escalating cases of Islamophobia have not only made life difficult for Muslims, but have also jeopardized the European tradition of tolerance and assimilation. This realization prompted the Council of Europe to adopt the EU anti-racism action plan. This plan advocates for more rigorous national measures outlined in national action plans to combat Islamophobia including the fair policing, increased enforcement of EU legislation, minority group protection and launch new projects in areas such as social inclusion, health, and education.
The European Parliament adopted the resolution “On racial justice, non-discrimination, and anti-racism in the EU” on November 10, 2022. The resolution recognizes that “racial discrimination and harassment remain commonplace in the EU.” Furthermore, the resolution sees an increase in “racist, xenophobic, and homo/transphobic movements and extremist ideologies, particularly extreme right-wing sentiments, which were regarded as “serious threats to democratic societies in the EU, as well as to the safety of racialized groups.”
The expert body on racism and intolerance (ECRI) of the Council of Europe announced a new General Policy Recommendation on preventing and combatting anti-Muslim racism and discrimination on March 1, 2022. The ECRI stressed that Muslims are intrinsic to Europe’s diversity and emphasized the need for collective action in creating inclusive communities that bring individuals from various backgrounds together while upholding equality and respect through a shared set of democratic ideals.
The ECRI expressed worry that anti-Muslim prejudice and hostility had become ubiquitous in society in recent years, infiltrating institutional, political, social, and economic life. The ECRI provides policy and institutional coordination advice to governments, as well as prevention, protection, and prosecution, and law enforcement. Its recommendation included; prioritizing the fight against anti-Muslim racism through appropriate action plans, bring necessary legislative changes, and appointment of coordinators and specialized independent monitoring groups or committees.
Governments, according to the ECRI, should also prioritize prevention and encourage political actors, opinion leaders, and other public figures to publicly condemn anti-Muslim prejudice, eliminate discrimination against Muslims in career and educational opportunities, particularly by prioritizing Muslim women’s rights and to increase awareness of Muslim history, its diversity, and the positive contributions made by Muslim people, communities, and cultures to European societies.
According to the ECRI, governments should partner with social media platforms to develop projects to ensure distribution of correct information about Muslims and Islam on these platforms, ensure the security of Muslims, Muslim communities, and their institutions and foster cooperation between Muslims and law enforcement officers. Furthermore, it is strongly urged to strengthen cooperation and communication with Muslim communities in order to select and implement security measures that address their concerns and needs. In terms of criminal justice and law enforcement, the ECRI recommends that anti-Muslim crimes committed online be dealt with effectively through effective prosecution and other means. Internet service providers must also remove illegal anti-Muslim hate speech quickly and consistently in accordance with the applicable legal and extra-legal framework. The ECRI made its first general policy suggestion in this regard in 2000.
The current revised General Policy Recommendation of ECRI emphasized the importance of implementing national anti-Islamophobia action plans after acknowledging the issues faced by Muslims. It offers specific recommendations for Council of Europe member countries on “raising awareness of and combating Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim racism, in Europe.” According to Amnesty International (AI) , it is a “call to action against Islamophobia in Europe which intends to accuse authorities in several European states of normalizing discrimination against Muslims.” AI commented that Racist laws, policies, and practices have no place in Europe and observed that the hate crimes against Muslims and people considered to be Muslim are far too frequently not officially registered or successfully investigated. Surveillance of Muslim men, women, and even children is widely considered as standard practice, and a variety of counter-terrorism methods are being implemented outside the criminal justice systems, with inadequate safeguards.
AI highlighted the importance for Muslims’ participation in public places and said that restriction by policies encourage everyday intolerance, bias and discrimination that many Muslims experience is a form of racism. Muslim women’s access to public places is restricted through policies and practices that are based on harmful gender stereotypes and are prohibited to wear religious symbols and dress at the workplace, in schools and in public generally. Al reiterated that policymakers must stop using racist and discriminatory rhetoric against Muslims and immediately take action to ensure that they can enjoy their fundamental rights to equality and dignity, and live their lives without discrimination
Every country that is a member of the United Nations is obligated to accept and execute the resolution declaring March 15 as “International Day to Combat Islamophobia” in order to advocate for further change in the battle against anti-Muslim prejudice. The Muslim countries and the OIC should urge the Council of Europe to adopt seriously and implement the ECRI’s General Policy Recommendation No. 5 on preventing and fighting anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination. The proposals should be included into the various national action plans of European Union member countries.
European and national institutions should be urged to take the findings of the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) seriously in order to remedy the harm caused by anti-terrorism laws to European Muslim communities.
The Swedish government must engage in educational and awareness-raising programs, as well as punish perpetrators of hate crimes by holding them accountable in order to create a society in which everyone, regardless of religion, feels safe and respected.
Muslims must exercise utmost caution in protesting against this sacrilegious act peacefully, within civilized behavior, without resorting to violence, and without displaying incorrect attitude and behavior in order to demonstrate peaceful teachings of the Quran without being carried away by emotions. While registering their protests, they must imagine what Hazrat Mohammad “Peace Be Upon Him” would have done if such an event had occurred while he was still alive.
By Qamar Bashir
Former Press Secretary to the President
Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France
Former MD, SRBC