Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before: a provocateur threatens to burn copies of Islam’s holy text, the Qu’ran, is threatened, and generates outrage and unrest. A decade ago, that was a stunt pulled by a Christian pastor in Florida. Now, it’s being repeated by the Danish-Swedish politician Rasmus Paludan.
Riots have broken out in some parts of Swedish cities after Paludan, who is hoping to get some attention for upcoming elections in September, threatened to burn copies of the Qu’ran.
We already know the script and what everyone is going to say. The usual suspects on the far-right will say this shows Islam is incompatible with western liberal values. Muslim politicians will say the Qu’ran is the word of God, and such provocation cannot go unanswered. Round and round we go, every few years. Perhaps some governments will get involved and summon their hapless Swedish ambassador to explain themselves. And they will say, quite rightly, that the culture and laws of Sweden allow people to insult religion if they want to. They will be told, quite rightly, that such incidents are designed to whip up anger against Muslims.
The riots will also play into fears in Sweden that their generous policy of welcoming refugees and immigrants has turned sour, with youngsters refusing to integrate and choosing a life of criminality and/or religious extremism instead. Though, it’s worth noting that hardly any of the men pictured in the videos of riots look particularly religious. I suspect most of them just wanted an excuse to riot and should be prosecuted by the full force of the law. You won’t see me defending naked criminality. It’s also worth noting that Paludan needs the attention, as he doesn’t have enough signatures to be a candidate in the coming elections.
In short, it is a perfect storm at a time when Marine Le Pen is threatening to become the leader of France.
In one way, this is little to do with Muslims or Islam. I come from a family of religious Sikhs. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that Sikhs will also riot if they see their holy scriptures disrespected. There have been multiple such incidents over the last year alone. In India there have been a growing number of “communal incidents” – India-speak for Hindu extremists picking fights with Muslims – in recent months too. Just a few years ago, there were a spate of lynchings over rumours that Muslims were eating beef (the cow is considered to be a holy animal). There is a long history of Buddhist religious violence too. More recently, Myanmar’s Buddhists committed mass pogroms of the Muslim ethnic minorities (the Rohingyas) to drive them out of the country.
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This is not an excuse for any such violence – I strongly support the right for people to offend without fearing for their safety. My point is that religious people almost everywhere can be driven to violence given the circumstances. They are not inherently violent, or “backwards” as some might think, they just have different priorities.
It’s more that these incidents are – almost always – political stunts.
Every participant in the Swedish riots – from Rasmus Paludan to the rioters themselves, to the people condemning or praising these events – are taking part in a huge stunt. They are playing to the gallery, to their own different audiences. Religious violence in India flares up just before elections too. Politicians stoke up tensions, and once people are sufficiently angry and polarised, and vote accordingly, politicians move on. Ordinary people are always left to pick up the pieces.
Islam may be one of the most polarising issues in Europe today, but it was Jews and Catholics not long ago. Before that it was someone else. So, if you’ve heard all this before then that wouldn’t surprise me. As Karl Marx once said, history always repeats itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce.