Book Burning and the Far-Right in Sweden

On 21 January 2023, the far-right Swedish politician Rasmus Paludan set fire to a copy of the Quran in front of Turkey’s embassy in Stockholm. While Paludan considers his deed an act of ‘free speech’, Muslims worldwide condemn it and consider what happened in Stockholm a hate crime.

It is well known that Islamophobia has increased since 9/11. The attack on the world’s superpower made many people see Muslim populations as a threat to the West. The effects of 9/11 spread beyond the US, with Islamophobic verbal and physical abuse soaring in Europe, where many fear a transformation into ‘Eurabia’. Paludan is one of these extremists who exaggerates the threat of Islamisation and ‘Eurabisation’. He considers himself an ethno-nationalist who rejects Islam’s presence in Europe. He has previously said that ‘the enemy is Islam and Muslims. The best thing would be if there were not a single Muslim left on this earth. Then, we would have reached our final goal’. This anti-Muslim rhetoric is used to justify such hateful crimes as setting Muslims’ holy book on fire with a lighter.

The High Representative of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations has condemned the burning of the Quran as a ‘vile act’. The High Representative emphasises the importance of freedom of expression as a fundamental human right; however, he stresses that burning the Muslim holy book should not be conflated with freedom of speech because this insulting act amounts to an expression of hatred towards Muslims. Along the same lines, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, ‘It’s a racist action. It is not about freedom of expression’. People protested in Turkey and Bangladesh in order to decry the incident. Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Somalia and Jordan have also denounced it.

It is noteworthy that the public destruction of books by fire for political purposes has a long and dark history. Book burnings were regularly organised in Nazi Germany: the Nazi regime’s burning of books on 10 May 1933 is perhaps the most famous book burning in history. Nazi-dominated student groups also carried out public burnings of books they considered ‘un-German’. This deliberate destruction of books took place in 34 university towns and cities. The Nazi university student association created blacklists of the books that were going to be thrown in the flames, which included works by political and literary figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Bertolt Brecht and Erich Maria Remarque. Many important books that were written by prominent Jewish, liberal and leftist writers ended up in the bonfires. In Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century, Rebecca Knuth explains that purposeful book burners feel like victims even though they are in power, and book burning Nazis framed themselves as the ‘victims of the Jews’. Similarly, Paludan uses the rhetoric of victimhood to portray Europeans as potential victims of Islam and Muslims, all the while encouraging hatred towards a minority.

It is worth adding that book burnings are not staged by Nazis only. Terrorists have also targeted books. In Mali, militants affiliated with al-Qaeda militants burned the library in Timbutktu in 2013. These Islamists set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless books, some of which dated back to the thirteenth century. Many of these manuscripts were untranslated, with a single copyist working on decoding them. According to UNESCO, in order to wipe out anything that contradicted their extremist view of Islam ISIS militants set fire to about 4200 texts. This was a ‘devastating blow’ to world heritage because the texts had been passed down through multiple generations. They had been copied and re-copied, kept in private libraries and in some cases buried in the Sahara desert for safekeeping. Most of the texts were written by Islamic teachers and students who travelled to and from Timbuktu between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries, a period when Timbuktu was a thriving centre of Islamic scholarship, culture and the exchange of ideas.

Furthermore, in 2015, ISIS burned books from Mosul library in order to show both ideological and territorial conquest. Islamist militants burned more than 100,000 rare manuscripts and documents spanning centuries of human learning. Approximately 8000 were books. These included collections from the Ottoman period. ISIS extremists also inflicted severe damage to the Sunni Muslim Library, the library of the 265-year-old Latin Church and Monastery of the Dominican Fathers and the Mosul Museum Library. Locals said that ISIS extremists loaded around 2000 books into six pickup trucks and told them, ‘These books promote infidelity and call for disobeying Allah. So, they will be burned’. They included children’s stories, poetry, philosophy and tomes on health, sports, culture and science.

The common element linking these different book burners is that they want to destroy different ideas and different identities. They all use the barbaric ritual of book burning in order to silence, repress and degrade those they hate. Moreover, all of them burn books in order to achieve ideological and political aims. In the case of Paludan, it is important to highlight the electoral goal that drove his offensive act. Indeed, this is not the first time Paludan has burnt the Quran. The leader of the anti-Islam and anti-immigration group Hard Line has a history that testifies to his Islamophobic ideology and its appeal to right-wing extremists. In order to win the support of fundamentalist electorates ahead of the September 2022 elections, in April 2022 he declared a ‘Quran burning tour’ of Sweden. He planned to visit cities and towns with large Muslim populations during the holy month of Ramadhan in order to burn copies of the Quran. Consequently, violence erupted, and protest over the planned public burning of the Muslim holy book lasted for days.

This year, Paludan’s political career is at stake, as he plans to run in the June 2023 elections. Again, it looks like one of his strategies for winning votes is Islamophobia. Many Muslims assert that the principle of liberty of expression has been used to cover up racist discourse and Islamophobic acts that demonise adherents of Islam; Paludan’s act reminded them of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and its publishing of offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in 2005. According to them, the cartoons are a sign that Islamophobia is hidden under a misleading insistence on free speech. Many Muslims say that liberty of speech is being used again today in order to cover up Paludan’s hate crime.

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About the author

Jyhene Kebsi

Dr. Jyhene Kebsi is the Director of Learning & Teaching at Macquarie University. Her research focuses on transnationalism, postcolonialism, globalization and asylum.

More articles by Jyhene Kebsi

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