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Sweden: Free Speech in Peril after Muslim Riots by Sven R. Larson

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Sweden: Free Speech in Peril after Muslim Riots

“Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.”

These words of wisdom were formulated by Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor and literary critic (“Censorship and Justice: On Rushdie and Soyinka,” Research in African Literatures, Spring, 1990). The chilling comparison of censors to lynch mobs applies to all forms of human expression, from art to literature, from music to the spoken word. 

During Easter week, Sweden got a taste of Gates’s comparison. Rasmus Paludan, a Danish politician with dual Danish-Swedish citizenship, toured Sweden with a stack of Korans that he planned to burn at public events in half a dozen cities. His events were planned for neighborhoods dominated by Muslim immigrants.

Paludan has a history of desecrating the Koran, sometimes by adding a couple of bacon strips on top of the book before burning it. 

In response to his rather distasteful political practice, mobs of protesters rioted in several cities. Setting vehicles on fire, targeting police with fireworks, rocks, and other projectiles, the rioters left a long trail of destruction behind them. 

Paludan is known in Denmark as a fierce critic of Islam. He has now decided to launch a new anti-immigrant party in Sweden. This puts his use of free speech in the public Swedish spotlight and has already led to calls for restrictions to the freedom of expression. In response to Paludan’s plans for a second tour of yet more cities, the mayoral offices of at least two cities have asked police to deny Paludan more public-event permits. 

Others go further. Atilla Yoldas, a columnist with Expressen, a large daily newspaper, has started a signature-collecting campaign to make the burning of the Koran a “hate crime.”

A similar initiative comes from the Islamist party Nyans, whose chairman Mikail Yuksel has filed a formal complaint with the Justitieombudsman, the judge advocate office that oversees civil rights in Sweden. Yuksel wants the police to stop giving permits to events that “rail against Muslims.” By turning to the judge advocate, Yuksel hopes to achieve his goal without having to wait for the legislative grinds of the parliament.

The party Nyans is a rapidly growing force in Swedish politics, with a good chance to win seats in the Swedish Parliament in the September elections. Their swift initiative to restrict free speech is a direct challenge to the political leadership in Sweden. 

As we will see in a moment, Swedish leadership is unprepared for this challenge. More than likely, those who want to restrict speech will come out victorious, and freedom of expression will be sacrificed in an unholy compromise between Islamists and social democrats. 

Rasmus Paludan, Salman Rushdie, and free speech

There are still proponents of free speech in prominent places. In a reaction to Rasmus Paludan’s deeds, Minister of Justice, Mr. Morgan Johansson, stated that “even crazy people have a right to free speech.” 

At the same time, Johansson does not miss one opportunity to express his disdain for Paludan. This is noteworthy in itself; one has to wonder if his free-speech defense would have been more unequivocal, had Paludan chosen a different form of political expression. 

 Or, if he had not been such an unlikable character. 

In August last year, Danish newspaper Ekstrabladet published an investigation into the seedy online chats that Paludan runs under an organization he calls Dansk Ungdom [Danish Youth]. The Ekstrabladet published recordings of chats where Paludan pursues violently and sexually explicit conversations with young teenage boys. They also documented how he pressured them to watch a video of a man committing suicide. Some of the boys were as young as 13.

Precisely because Paludan is such a repulsive individual, his decision to run for the Swedish Parliament in September is a test of character for the entire Swedish society. 

As things look now, Paludan and free speech are on the losing end. 

Would things have looked different if violence erupted in response to more civilized criticism of Islam? What if Salman Rushdie came to town to hold a public reading of his book Satanic Verses? Would Swedish society stand up more strongly for freedom of speech than they do now?

The comparison between Paludan and Rushdie is a good example of what Henry Louis Gates points to in his aforementioned article:

Freedom of speech doesn’t exist just for the protection of masterpieces. Anyone who thinks it does may soon discover that there are no masterpieces left to protect.

One would hope that Swedish politicians and free-speech advocates would be ready to defend both Rushdie and Paludan. Alas, Sweden has a lot to prove on this front. Free speech is not defended with even remotely the same fervor in my native country as it is in, e.g., America. 

A tradition of restricting speech

The Swedish government has a troubling record of restricting speech. In the 1930s, publicist and author Torgny Segerstedt was targeted by the social-democrat government for his criticism of the German Nazis and their anti-Semitism. Among other measures, the government prevented his newspaper from being distributed by means of public transportation.

In 2004, Pastor Åke Green was charged with “hate speech” for “disrespecting” gay individuals. His crime was to quote the Bible (Gen. 1:28-28, 2:24, 19:1-5). After being sentenced to jail in a lower court, an appeals court overturned his conviction. 

However, few cases of free-speech defense—or lack thereof—exposed the weak free-speech fabric of Swedish society as the so-called fatwa that Iranian clerics issued against Salman Rushdie. 

The Swedish Academy, a centuries-old institution created for the defense of free speech, is also the committee that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature. Despite its pride on the free speech front, they refused to come out in support for Rushdie. In protest, 3 of the 18 members of the Academy abandoned their seats. Their protest was all the more prominent given that the Academy supported Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, including awarding him the Nobel Prize in 1970. 

The spinelessness of the Swedish Academy in the face of the persecution of Salman Rushdie is indicative of how institutions and prominent individuals in Sweden react to challenges to free speech. Rasmus Paludan’s activities have drawn a mostly lip-service defense. The occasional strong words from some leading politicians, including Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, are exceptions.

Those reactions are also unlikely to be followed by any material defense of free speech. More than anything, the comments thus far have revealed a sense of shock over the high level of both intensity in and coordination of the riots. Rioters attacked law enforcement with disrespect, even contempt. Lines of police officers ran away in panic; rioters commandeered police vehicles, stole police uniforms and equipment, and set the vehicles on fire.

The assertiveness and coordination of the riots convey a message to the Swedish government. It is a message that no Swedish politician has yet dared to spell out, but which will affect how they handle free-speech issues going forward.

It is a simple yet brutal message: the Islamist movement in Sweden is not going to tolerate the country’s free-speech laws anymore, and it will use whatever means necessary to achieve its goal. 

A shift in tone

Listening carefully to the comments from government officials, one can detect a subtle sense of awareness of this message. This awareness is revealed in, e.g., the comments by national police commissioner Anders Thornberg. At a press conference on Easter Monday, Thornberg acknowledged that criminal gangs were instrumental in the riots.

The political leadership, waking up to this realization, has begun realizing its profound implications—and they are in shock at what they see. Columnist Helena Gissén with the Expressen newspaper captured this sentiment in a column from April 19th, where she pointed to a radical change in rhetoric from both the government and the political opposition.

Usually, politically originated comments on violence in Sweden talk about how “society is stronger than the criminal gangs.” Gissén explains that this phrase has given way to a much more defensive “we can do better” in fighting organized crime. 

To an outside observer, this is just a minor adjustment of the political rhetoric, but for the connoisseur of Swedish society and its culture, it is a paradigmatic shift in political thinking. It is also a major reason to believe that free speech is now going to come under real pressure. 

Sweden has a culture that is hostile to two things that foreigners consider natural: disagreement and the admission of failure. The Swede’s problem with the former is well described by Roland Huntford in The New Totalitarians (1971); the inability to admit failure emerged with the societal transformation that took place in Sweden in the mid-20th century. 

In the 1940s and 1950s, the social-democrat party reconfigured Sweden in the image of a democrat-socialist utopia. Social democrat ideologues of the time often bragged globally about their accomplishments. 

An attitude of societal superiority came to define the Swedish national self image. It was boosted by statements from the social-democrat government, such as the ones from the late 1960s that all major problems in society had been solved.

This better-than-thee attitude worked its way into the collective mindset of the Swedish people. Among its many consequences was a socially imposed inability among Swedes to admit that their society had any major problems. For decades, you were stigmatized as a social outcast if you talked about rising crime, a stagnating economy, and an increasingly de-intellectualized school system. 

Sacrificing free speech

In the past two decades, this sense of societal superiority has worn off, but it has left footprints in Swedish political culture, especially that which characterizes the governing social-democrat party. When social-democrat politicians are faced with a problem that they did not anticipate, they first react with silence. This is an instinctive reaction to make the problem go away. Increasing systemic deficiencies in the Swedish welfare state have slowly forced the political elite to do away with silence. However, their default approach is that their socio-economic model can solve any and all problems.

When the social democrats are faced with events like the Easter riots; when they realize the magnitude of the riots; they cannot stay silent any longer. At the same time, they cannot admit that the society they built has flaws big enough to cause such a scale of organized violence. 

This is why the government has abandoned its aphorism about society being stronger than the gangs. Giving away their fear that their socio-economic model, the grand social-democrat welfare state, may have flaws, they promise to “do better” to prevent such riots in the future.

Herein lies a subtle but unmistakable hint of speech-restriction laws to come. The governing social democrats have one, and only one, interest: to restore the superficial social stability that proves that their welfare state still works. 

They know where the threat to social stability comes from. The admission by police commissioner Thornberg that criminal gangs coordinated the riots, is only the tip of the iceberg. The government has realized that they are facing a tripod of Islamic political activism, where criminal gangs coordinate with religious activists in the immigrant neighborhood, while the “political arm” of that same activism—the party Nyans—capitalizes on the movement in the September election. 

To appease this movement and preserve social stability, the social democrats will sacrifice whatever lambs they have to—including free speech.

My prediction is in no way outlandish. The Left is well known for appeasing politically radical Islam. In his book Unholy Alliance (2006), David Horowitz describes how the Left in Western countries fundamentally misunderstands the Islamist movement. Thinking that the Islamists really are socialists, the Left cooperates with the Islamists, making concessions as they wait for them to replace their theology with “true” socialism. 

One of those concessions will be free speech. When the Swedes realize that Islamism is not at all socialist, it will be too late. There will be no freedom to speak left for the Left to speak of freedom.

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.