‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

Bilan Osman
Bilan Osman. Photo: Private.

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.

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EXPLAINED: How right-wing is Norway?

Politics in Europe appears to be trending towards the right, with right-wing and far-right parties performing well in recent elections in Sweden and Italy. So, how much of a right-wing presence is there in Norway? 

EXPLAINED: How right-wing is Norway?

Across Europe, recent election results have shown a trend towards the right. In Italy, election winner Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy party is set to become the new PM, while in Sweden, the anti-immigration Swedish Democrats will form part of a right-wing government there. 

Norway appears to be one of the exceptions to this recent trend. In last year’s election, the centre-right government was ousted in favour of a minority coalition of the Labour Party and Centre Party, with the new regime relying on budgetary and parliamentary support from the Socialist Left Party. 

So, where does the country lie politically? Professor Knut Heidar, Professor Emeritus at the Department of Political Science at the University of Oslo, said that Norway could be placed moderately to the left of the political spectrum when compared to the rest of northern Europe. 

“(There is a) broad agreement among the parties about redistribution (of wealth) and an active welfare state. Also, the far-right Progress Party argues for broader state welfare provisions for ‘ordinary people. At the same time, (there is) a broad consensus on providing good opportunities for private enterprise, although (there are) disagreements (between the parties) on taxes,” he explained to The Local. He added that Norway’s political leaning as a country was typical of Scandinavia as a whole. 

Historically, the Labour Party has been Norway’s biggest and most popular political party, with the Conservatives, the country’s largest right-wing party, winning the 2nd or 3rd most seats in parliamentary elections. 

However, Norway is not too far removed from eight years of centre-right government, which included the Progress Party (FRP) for over six of those years. 

The presence of the far-right party in governemnt has had the effect of normalising the populist party as one which could be seen as being part of government- not just in opposition, according to Heidar. 

When asked what impact the Progress Party had while in government, Heidar said: “(It was) small in the overall picture, but they won some symbolic victories. More importantly, (they) moved public debate onto issues that previously had been ‘no-go’ areas.” 

Eventually, though, governmental fatigue would set in for both the Progress Party and Conservative Party and their popularity dipped by the time the 2021 election rolled around. The Conservatives and Progress Party ended up being the two biggest losers on election night, losing nine and six seats respectively. 

The Progress Party would leave governemnt more than a year before the election though. It walked out of government over Norway’s decision to allow a woman linked with the Islamic State terror group back into the country on humanitarian grounds.

What draws voters in Norway to the right? 

Heidar explained that voters of the Conservative Party are typically drawn to its policies on tax and competition between the public and private sector for public services such as health, social services and education.

The political scientist explained that voters of the Progress Party are most concerned with immigration, slashing government red tape, and cutting taxes. 

In this regard, Heidar explained, the Progress Party is similar to other right-wing parties in Scandinavia but that it was less extreme than populist parties in Denmark and Sweden. He added that there was one aspect in which the Progress Party outperformed other parties on the far-right. 

“(They are) also much better in building party organisation and educating their politicians, some of which were much more liberal (in a European sense) than populist,” he said. 

What about the long-term?

The shift from a centre-right to a centre-left government is unlikely to represent a shift in the paradigm or indicate a longer-term trend towards the left. 

Instead, it may simply represent a continuation of the politics and policies that have come before, according to Heidar. 

“No”, the professor said when asked if there was any evidence that Norway could shift further to the right or the left in the longer term. He added that due to serious challenges internationally, the country would likely favour stability over sweeping changes. 

READ ALSO: Why isn’t Norway an EU member?