Creating new perspectives since 2009

Sweden’s freedom of speech is trumped by a Muslim masterclass in tolerance

June 30, 2023 at 9:24 am

Students stage a protest against the burning of the Quran in Sweden on 24 January 2023, in Gaza [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

It’s Eid Al-Adha, a blessed time of year for Muslims and a magnet for attention-seekers who do their best to provoke and incite them to react violently so that they can sell a mediocre book, film or cartoon, or create a volatile political situation to demonise Islam. It happens, twice a year, every year, on Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha.

The hateful bigots come up with some form of abuse to provoke and upset Muslims, so I take my hat off to the 200-strong congregation who assembled outside a Stockholm mosque for Eid and simply ignored obnoxious 37-year-old Iraqi refugee Salwan Momika.

In a practical illustration of extreme tolerance, the Muslims remained calm while the tormented Iraqi tore at pages of a Qur’an, wiped the shredded paper on his shoes and even produced a rasher of bacon to rub on the Holy Book before setting it on fire. At the end of this hate-filled performance, the Muslims from the mosque gently mocked Momika, while another unidentified accomplice tried to stir up hate among the crowd using a megaphone.

Two onlookers spoke afterwards to journalist Nils Adler, who was covering the planned protest for Al Jazeera. “I feel bad for him [Momika], not for us,” said financial manager Avsan Mezori, 32. He added that, as a Muslim, “What I have within me, he can’t take; I don’t want to give him the attention.” Husam El-Gomati, a political activist originally from Libya, dismissed the act as a “trick” intended to provoke a reaction that could be used “to portray Muslims as violent.”

I have read several accounts of what was really a non-event, although some of the mischievous British tabloids preferred to push the false narrative of “Global fury” as (rather predictably) the Daily Mail reported.

EXPLAINER – Turkiye keeps Sweden waiting on NATO membership as key summit nears

Obviously, such an action was designed to hurt Muslims and produce a violent response. The fact that these Swedish Muslims remained largely impassive is a tribute to them and, I would say, the finest traditions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The reaction was thoughtful and mature, although it is disappointing that a country like Sweden allowed Momika’s protest to go ahead in the first place.

Another reaction to his pathetic theatrics is taking place at a much higher level through Turkiye’s foreign minister, who has criticised the burning of the Qur’an outside the Stockholm mosque. “I condemn the vile protest in Sweden against our Holy Book on the first day of the blessed Eid Al-Adha,” Hakan Fidan tweeted on Wednesday. “It is unacceptable to allow anti-Islam protests in the name of freedom of expression.”

This could further complicate Sweden’s application to join NATO, which needs Ankara’s approval. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Wednesday that Sweden had made some progress towards getting Turkiye’s backing, but not enough. NATO said that top diplomats from both countries would meet in Brussels next week.

A heavy police presence had allowed the troubled Iraqi to launch his protest. In my humble opinion, such a negative, hateful and pointless event should not have gone ahead. However, the authorities — and be in no doubt that this would have gone right to the top of government — did not act and will possibly suffer the consequences in a global backlash from other governments in the Muslim world.

The Swedish government could have so easily stopped the hateful act using existent legislation on the grounds that it posed a threat to security, but it chose not to. Thankfully, the Muslims in the immediate area opted not to react violently but to mock the protest instead. It was a lesson in wisdom and tolerance that should be followed closely by other Muslims around the world, because similar demonstrations elsewhere have ended in bloodshed. This one passed off relatively peacefully, though, and police say that the organiser is now being investigated for incitement and violating a seasonal ban on lighting fires in Sweden. One man was reportedly suspected of attempted assault, and another who was carrying stones in his hand was removed by police.

Momika denied that his intention was to sabotage Sweden’s bid to join NATO, saying that he had considered waiting to stage his protest until after Sweden had joined the organisation. No doubt the Swedish authorities wish he had, but if Turkiye does veto Stockholm’s application, it will have nobody to blame but itself. In his application for permission to stage the protest, the clearly disturbed Iraqi said that he wanted to protest in front of the mosque in Stockholm, “and… express my opinion about the Qur’an.” The Swedish official who gave him the green light might like to reflect on what transpired as well as Momika’s motivation.

Considering the series of protests in Sweden against Islam and in support of Kurdish rights that have so offended Turkey, it’s little wonder that Ankara has delayed the Nordic country’s accession to NATO. Erdogan accuses Sweden of harbouring people it considers to be terrorists and has demanded their extradition. Once again, the Turkish leader has shown the sort of leadership that Muslims around the world appreciate in the absence of a Caliph. NATO, meanwhile, has been gently pressing Turkiye to lift the veto on Stockholm’s application before the next alliance summit in Brussels on 11-12 July.

READ: The Ottoman soldier who sacrificed his freedom to defend Al-Aqsa Mosque 

The fact that NATO, one of the most powerful military institutions in the world, has allowed its plans to be outwitted by a deluded Iraqi refugee reminded me of the warning made by Martin Luther King Jr that we should never underestimate the power of human stupidity. “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,” said the late civil rights leader. This sums up perfectly Sweden’s decision to allow the protest outside the mosque to go ahead.

In January, Ankara suspended talks with Sweden about its NATO application after Rasmus Paludan, a Swedish-Danish activist who has been convicted for racist abuse, burned a copy of the Qur’an outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm. Paludan, the leader of the far-right Danish party Hard Line, provoked rioting in Sweden when he went on a tour of the country, burning copies of Islam’s Holy Book. It later emerged that this spate of Qur’an burning was funded by a far-right journalist with links to Kremlin-backed media. You really couldn’t make this stuff up.

The Swedish police have seemingly rejected at least two more requests recently to stage anti-Qur’an protests, but their decisions were overruled by the courts on the grounds that they infringed the right to freedom of speech. Of the latest burning of the Holy Book, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson would only say: “It’s legal, but not appropriate. We live in a time when one should stay calm and think of what’s best for Sweden’s long-term interest.” How’s that working out for you, Mr Kristersson?

The newly emboldened Saudi Arabia under de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman denounced the January Qur’an-burning episode. It will be interesting to see if any government in the Arab world makes Sweden pay for this latest example of “inappropriate” freedom of speech.

In the meantime, kudos to the savvy Swedish Muslims in Stockholm who opted for gentle mockery on Eid Day rather than violence. In doing so, they ensured that the hurt and pain which Salwan Momika intended to inflict didn’t hit the mark. They took control of a potentially difficult situation and, in the spirit of the standard set by the Prophet, they forgot about revenge and hatred, and celebrated their special day despite the Iraqi refugee and his cronies.

Swedish liberals may now want to reflect on why intelligent people are being abused so that stupid people can boast that they have freedom of speech, not least because the latter has been trumped by a Muslim masterclass in tolerance. We really do live in crazy times.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.