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HomeNewsHow the Kremlin benefits – DW – 08/08/2023

How the Kremlin benefits – DW – 08/08/2023

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Husam El Gomati scrolls through his phone and points at a long post in Arabic. “Mohammad Ahmad Ali, the most typical name, with some funny picture,” he notes. Scrolling through the post, El Gomati confirms what he expected: “Yeah, you’re going to find that he’s also liking the Ukrainian-Russian war and commenting a lot about it … like so many profiles, countless profiles.”

He pulls up a photo on another account, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin kissing a Quran at an event where the Russian leader also criticized countries he said do not protect Islam’s holy book, meaning, of course, Sweden. “[This profile] says the picture shows everything: ‘This is why we Muslims are with Moscow,'” El Gomati translates. “This kind of message has an echo, so it is effective and it is dangerous and we need to make a stop on this.”

Husam El Gomati, political activist, in Stockholm
Political activist Husam El Gomati is urging Sweden to ban the burning of all religious booksImage: Floris Van den Abbeele/DW

Man in the middle 

A Libyan-born political activist now working as an investor in Stockholm, El Gomati believes the Swedish government should stop issuing permits for public demonstrations to anyone who may desecrate religious books. A non-practicing Muslim, he personally attends Quran burnings to discuss the issue with those gathered in an attempt to reduce tempers on all sides.

El Gomati is very concerned by how effectively the Kremlin — along with Islamist and radical right-wing extremists — is instrumentalizing Quran burnings to stir up anger and even violence against Sweden both in the Muslim world, and, he fears, perhaps among Muslims in Europe. “They feed on these events and they use them,” he warned. “If these events [are] not happening they don’t have material to tell people to go and bomb yourself in the middle of of Europe.” 

Swedish government analysts are also sounding the alarm. “We have seen for the first time Russia using the narratives, focusing on the false image of Sweden being hostile against Islam,” says Mikael Ostlund of the Agency for Psychological Defense, a Swedish Defense Ministry office tasked with detecting and combating dangerous propaganda. 

“They are repeating the narratives that we see in the Islamist extremism environment and using that in their state-controlled media channels like Russia Today and Sputnik towards the Arabic-speaking people,” he says.

While disinformation coming from Moscow wouldn’t normally get much traction among Swedes, Ostlund told DW, the messages are being spread through the Global South, Latin America, Africa and Asia, and then even recirculated back to Sweden in a manner that disguises their origin as Russian propaganda.

Smartphone showing photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin holding a Quran to his heart
Political activist Husam El Gomati shows how popular Quran-hugging Russian President Vladimir Putin is among Arabic-speaking commentatorsImage: Floris Van den Abbeele/DW

Russia’s regular tactics

It’s happened before, Ostlund said, when Kremlin-controlled outlets created a rumor that Swedish social services were systematically kidnapping and trying to Christianize children from Muslim families, which make up an estimated 8% of the population according to a 2016 survey by Pew Research Center. 

“That was the largest disinformation campaign, malign campaign toward Sweden ever,” Ostlund explained, reaching hundreds of millions of followers on social media.

“It’s a threat to society a united society, if people don’t believe that they can get help” from public authorities, he noted. “I believe truth will win in the long run when you have free debate but we don’t have a free debate,” Ostlund pointed out. “Islamist extremists use the truth and make it a lie to spread their agenda among people.”

The Swedish government has come to the conclusion that public safety is at risk from the anti-Islamic events. Last week, it approved expanded police powers for conducting controls at the country’s borders in an attempt to keep out anyone who may seek revenge on Sweden. And it’s expected the government will soon give police wider scope to reject requests for “public meetings” where religious symbols may be desecrated.

“The mere fact that we perceive an increased security threat as a result of of the Quran burnings is enough for us to make these decisions,” Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom told DW in Stockholm after the government’s announcement. Billstrom has been working for months to dispel what he describes as “one of the big misunderstandings” about Swedish law — that police actively allow the burning of holy books, rather than merely granting permission to hold demonstrations. “I’m going to continue to explain this,” Billstrom said, “because we have to get rid of this misunderstanding of how our legislation is actually working.”

The Swedish government has repeatedly expressed its disapproval of the desecration but Turkey continues to mention it in its still unfinished process of approving Swedish accession to NATO and some countries have declined to send ambassadors to Stockholm over the matter.

Russia proves adept at exploiting Quran burnings in Sweden

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Pause in provocation

The government got a brief respite last week when one anti-Islam activist suddenly withdrew his request for permission to hold a “public meeting” where it was expected he would again burn a Quran. Iraqi refugee Salwan Momika had previously not only caused chaos in downtown Stockholm but also provoked severe violence against Swedish interests abroad. As a result of his actions, Iraqis set fire to the Swedish embassy in Baghdad last month and the Iraqi government expelled the Swedish ambassador, even suspending the right for Swedish telecommunications giant Ericsson to do business in Iraq.

Instead of any large-scale event that day, on a desolate beach, a lone woman staged a tiny anti-Islam protest with no one present but a handful of police officers, a couple of journalists and Husam El Gomati in attendance. He got into a bit of a shouting match with her about why she felt the need to burn a Quran. Speaking to DW at the scene, El Gomati explained he was “telling her what you are doing now is hate speech — it’s not free speech!”

A recent poll commissioned by Swedish public broadcaster SVT shows a majority of citizens may be ready to compromise on their traditionally broad interpretation of freedom of expression, with 53% of the population saying it should be illegal to burn any religious text. 

Edited by: Jon Shelton; Rob Mudge

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