The Islamophobic Context and Significance of Quran Burnings

What’s going on in traditionally tolerant Sweden?

Translation: That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.

By Emin Poljarevic

September/October 2022

During April (Ramadan) 2022, Muslims in several Swedish cities witnessed a series of Quran-burning stunts performed by Rasmus Paludan (b. 1982), a well-known Danish-Swedish Islamophobe who founded and leads the Danish political party Stram Kurs (lit. “Straight Course”) in 2017. These deeply offensive acts are best understood if contextualized.

Sweden’s police approved and protected these events, widely reported by national and international media outlets, based on their country’s constitutional provisions of freedom of speech and the freedom to publicly congregate, demonstrate and express opinions. Simply put, Sweden’s police forces are responsible for upholding a citizen’s right to convene a public book burning, even of a particular religion’s scriptures. It’s worthwhile noting, however, that no other religious scriptures have been publicly destroyed in this manner.

Paludan’s ceremonial burning of a mushaf (a printed copy of the Quran) attracts primarily young male Muslim counter-protesters with migrant background. In several cities, skirmishes between the police and the demonstrators broke out. In a few cases, things escalated into full-fledged riots in which the police’s equipment and vehicles were targeted and destroyed. In many places, however, the demonstrators either turned their backs in silence to Paludan’s stunts or drowned out his speech with defiant voices and whistling.

Several concerns have been raised in analyzing these events. Sweden’s mainstream media and right-wing pundits focused primarily on the violence following these provocations, particularly in Borås and Örebro. The ensuing debate focused on two issues: (1) the police’s failure to secure Paludan’s right to publicize his opinions and to assess the possible risks and (2) some of the demonstrators’ violent behavior. 

The risk assessment part was discussed mostly from the legal angle. The freedom to demonstrate is premised on the police authorities’ assessment that such events can be performed without endangering property and the wider public’s safety. The police received not only an internal critique, but also one from political pundits and public figures: They hadn’t fulfilled the relevant criteria before allowing these provocations. 

One of the legally dictated conditions of permitting book burnings is that the police conduct a risk assessment in terms of ensuring public safety and/or ascertaining if the hate speech calls for violence against one group of people — which is deemed illegal. 

The right-wing critique was directed toward the demonstrators. Ebba Busch, leader of the Christian Democratic party, criticized the police for not using live ammunition to stop “the Islamist,” “criminals,” and “insurrectionists.” Discussions of the racist and Islamophobic nature of these stunts were rare. 

Sweden’s overall sociopolitical climate, as well as the affected Muslims’ responses and, most importantly, the shape and direction of the public debate surrounding these events, reveal the vulnerability of the country’s highly ethnically diverse and economically weak Muslim communities. The community’s members are estimated to be somewhere between 500,000-800,000 — Sweden’s 2022 population is slightly over 10 million — most of whom are of migrant background. Some migrated during the 1960s from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. However, most arrived after the 1990s and, significantly, during the 2010s from the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia and East Africa.

The political and cultural demands articulated by an increasing number of policymakers across the political spectrum indicate that Swedish Muslims are becoming increasingly vulnerable to Islamophobia’s rising and its more poignant effects. During the 2010s, for example, Islamophobic rhetoric and violence were common among extreme right-wing groups and political actors. Today, parts of this rhetoric have been assimilated into mainstream right-wing and ethno-nationalist discourses. 

Such rhetoric, however, is hardly ever reproduced verbatim in the mainstream media. There, a subtler language is used. For instance, Paludan is usually referred to as an Islam-critic or extreme-right politician, and hardly ever as an Islamophobe. In short, the media’s terminology vis-à-vis anti-Muslim racism is contested, albeit implicitly, which indicates the anxiety over the appropriate jargon.

Beyond the media, the broader political and public debate reflected in social media is increasingly apprehensive about Muslims and Islam. Muslims and expressions of Muslimness, such as distinctive clothing (hijab), buildings (mosques, businesses etc.), behaviors (fasting, praying etc.), are increasingly identified as representing, simultaneously, internal and external threats to Sweden’s social cohesion and security. At the same time, the country’s adult population is more than 70% explicitly “atheist or non-religious”. In sum, the rise of extreme and right-wing populism is shaping and influencing the majority population’s collective consciousness and political preferences in regard to politically underrepresented Muslim communities. 

Therefore, the burning of mushafs should be understood in a sociopolitical context that is slowly but steadily spiraling into the ethno-nationalist and Islamophobic crevasse created by arguably the systemic alienation of Muslims and other religious minorities. A similar phenomenon can be observed most clearly in France, Denmark and Austria, but also elsewhere in Europe. 

The center-left parties, which have a very low number of Muslim officials in positions of power and influence, show few signs of having the political will needed to address the detriments of Islamophobia. The best protections thus far are the legislative provisions that protect religious freedoms and minorities. However, such provisions are changeable and a subject of constant political discussions and polemics.

One can argue that Islamophobia, understood as anti-Muslim racism ought to be a well-established term that describes and explains Paludan’s antics in the public discourse. Unfortunately, as this isn’t the case, the many Muslim activists engaged in anti-racist and anti-Islamophobic work are bound to continue developing and articulating terminology that can effectively and cogently describe, if not capture, this particular phenomenon. In other words, efforts need to be made to counteract Sweden’s descent into an ethnonationalist dystopia by striving for linguistic and conceptual clarity. 

One rather unique step in this direction has occurred in the U.K. context, where a broadly agreed-upon definition of Islamophobia has been developed. An “All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims” has developed, proposed, and widely endorsed the following definition, “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness” (Islamophobia+Defined.pdf ( 

The definition suggests that this type of racism has little or nothing to do with Islam as a theological system or a religious tradition. At the same time, it has little to do with race — anthropologically speaking as there are no different races beyond one human race. Instead, Muslims and their various expressions of beliefs, behaviors, and belonging are targeted and thus racialized. “Racism” in the above definition seems to point to those who harbor an arguably malicious intent, namely, to control, disempower and shun a particular group of people via racialization.

In this context, current book-burning events, especially those involving any religion’s scriptures, are charged manifestations of racialization seemingly designed to discipline Muslims in relation to a non-Muslim-majority society. Therefore, Paludan’s Quran burnings are far from simple expressions of free speech/expressions of opinion. In fact, he has explicitly stated that he is trying to cleanse Swedish (and Danish) societies from unwanted people (Muslims) and their presence in Europe. 

In part, this ambition echoes the German National Socialist Youth’s nationwide campaign during the spring of 1933 to “cleanse” (säuberung) the country from non-German elements, including books. Among the “non-German” literature, Torah scrolls were burned en masse, an atrocity followed by the burnings of Jews. 

Heinrich Heine (d. 1856), a German author and playwright, articulated a noteworthy quote in his 1821 play “Almansor.” Hassan, a resident of Granada in 1492, witnessed Quran-burning events by Granada’s Christian conquerors, who strove to cleanse the land of “foreign” elements uttering the following words: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” (“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”) The fictional Hassan reminded his audiences of the subsequent Spanish Inquisition and its säuberungs, which went on far beyond Andalusia and the Iberian Peninsula.

Quran burnings in the 2020s should therefore be seen in a much wider historical and sociopolitical context in order to decode their Islamophobic significance and potential impact on a continent that is recurrently plagued by ethnonationalist chauvinism, violence and genocides.

Emin Poljarević, an associate professor of the sociology of religion and systematic theology (Uppsala University, Sweden), specializes in social mobilization in Muslim minority and majority contexts, Muslim civil rights activism, political theology in Islamicate contexts, Islamic liberation theology and Malcolm X studies. He is a member of the Centre on Social Movement Studies (Scuola Normale Superiore Pisa/Florence) and the Centre for Multidisciplinary Research on Religion and Society’s (CRS Uppsala) Scientific Advisory Board 2020-22, as well as a co-leader of the center’s research area: “Family, Gender and Demography.” In 2022, Poljarević received the “Award for Good Teaching” from the Department of Theology’s Student Union.

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