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    « New Lawsuit Against DOD & VA Re: Sexual Abuse In US Military | Main | 'I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement', By Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo »

    Stockholm Suicide Bombing, Cartoon Of Muhammad, & The Swedish Society

    Sweden witnessed it's first terrorist attack yesterday, when a 29-year-old Iraqi born Swede - Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly - blew himself up in the middle of a busy shopping street (Drottninggatan) in central Stockholm. Thankfully only one of the six pipe bombs that he had strapped to his body exploded, thus limiting the damage. The car explosion in a white Audi parked nearby failed to detonate the bombs inside it as well but the car itself burned causing an explosion. The whole incident ended up injuring two passersby (reported to be minor injuries). 

    Stockholm Montage, Image Source: WikiJust minutes prior to the incident, the Swedish news agency TT and Swedish Security Service, both received email containing MP-3 audio-files, in both Swedish and Arabic, which warned about an attack on Sweden and the Swedish people. Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt and his administration are taking great pains to make it clear that the link between the attack promised in the emails and the one that took place on Drottninggatan is not yet conclusively established. However common sense dictates that there is a clear link between the two. 

    In the audio files sent in the emails, the sender (believed to be al-Abdaly) promises retaliation for two specific things: 1) Sweden's military presence in Afghanistan and 2) Sweden's defense of Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who in 2007 drew the controversial cartoon in which he depicted Prophet Muhammad as a dog. The Guardian reports that the emails warned, "The time has come to take action. Now your children, daughters and sisters shall die like our brothers and sisters and children are dying. Our actions will speak for themselves, as long as you do not end your war against Islam and humiliation of the prophet and your stupid support for the pig Vilks."

    As far as the first charge against Sweden, the country has at present 500 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. Sweden is not a member of the NATO, but it is a strong NATO ally. It joined NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in 1994, and has over the years provided peace keeping forces to NATO's missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. There has been much debate in the Swedish parliament about Sweden's role and presence in Afghanistan. Last month a compromise agreement was reached whereby it was agreed that the number of Swedish troops will remain unchanged next year with gradual withdrawal thereafter. By 2014, Sweden's role in Afghanistan would be limited to assisting in rebuilding efforts only.

    The Swedish political landscape has had quite a few changes lately. A decade long run by the Social Democrats ended in 2006 when the center-right coalition government came in power, headed by Moderate Party leader Fredrik Reinfeldt. Despite a fairly successful first term, PM Reinfeldt, failed to secure an outright majority in the September 2010 elections. Reinfeldt thus formed an alliance with the far right, anti-immigration Swedish Democrats, who won 20 seats in the parliament, for the first time in history. The Swedish Democrats' rise is part of a larger similar political wave across Europe in recent elections, where more conservative, right-wing political hard-liners are enjoying a resurgence.

    Issues such as immigration, role of immigrants in the Swedish society and in the Swedish economy have been heavily debated in the country. Some have questioned if this anti-immigration stand (which is a thinly veiled anti-Islam stand) is just blatant racism. German magazine Der Spiegel had addressed this issue back in October 2010 in an article (titled 'Rampant Racism?'). Here is an excerpt: "Following the success in September elections of a far-right populist party in the country, a Swedish immigrant has formed a party working to protect immigrants' interests. The new party is being founded amidst a wave of violent crime against foreigners in the southern city of Malmö last week. 

    The new party, which says it has gathered a thousand members over just a few days, sees itself as a group of immigrants working to protect foreigners' interests. They also seek to protest the sudden rise of the populist Sweden Democrats. Last month, the far-right party won 20 seats in the 349-member parliament. As part of its racist platform, the Sweden Democrats has dubbed Islam the greatest foreign threat since World War II and wants to severely cut back on immigration. 

    The right-wing swing within parliament sent a "clear warning signal," said party founder Tarek Alkhatib, a doctor who heads a clinic in Stockholm. "We have to defend ourselves through greater political activity," he said. Many immigrants did not feel adequately protected by the established parties, he added. His message was underscored by a series of sinister shootings targeting immigrants in the southwestern city of Malmö. Last Tuesday, a 28-year-old immigrant was severely injured when he was shot in the back while waiting for a bus.

    Two days later, two women were shot at through the window of their flat. According to the police an unknown sniper is behind a string of 16 shootings of immigrants. One woman has been killed by the attacker. Police continue to investigate the crimes. In the meantime, they have issued a warning to residents from ethnic minorities, saying they should take extra care when going out at night."

    Needless to say that Sweden which has traditionally enjoyed the reputation of being a neutral, peace loving, liberal and progressive society has had quite a few road bumps lately. Sweden has been rated highly favorably for doing business due to it's excellent rankings on the corruption index by the Berlin based, Transperancy International. However the recent Saab scandal (the Swedish company was accused of bribing South African officials to secure lucrative deals) has raised new doubts about the country's squeaky clean image. 

    PM Reinfeldt With Former US Pres Bush In May 2007, Image Source:Wiki

    Sweden enjoys equally high rankings on freedom of speech index. Paris based, RSF (Reporters Sans Frontières or Reporters Without Borders), has ranked Sweden along with most of the rest of Northern Europe, as best places to be a journalist. RSF recently said in it's 2010 Press Freedom Report that, "Sweden distinguishes itself by its Press Freedom Act, which has helped to create a particularly favourable climate for the work of journalists, by the strength of its institutions and by its respect for all those sectors of society including the media whose role in a democracy is to question and challenge those in positions of power". 

    This leads us now to the #2 charge made by the suicide bomber against Sweden, about it's defense of cartoonist Lars Vilks. Vilks' cartoon of Prophet Mohammad, as a dog, was published in Nerikes Allehanda, a regional newspaper, in August 2007 as an accompaniment to an editorial (titled 'The right to ridicule a religion') about self-censorship and freedom of expression. Here's an excerpt from that editorial, "Artist Lars Vilks has made three drawings ridiculing the prophet Mohammed. The prophet is portrayed as a “roundabout dog”. So far three art exhibitions have declined to publish his pictures. The Art Association in Tällerud said no. Then the school Gerlesborgsskolan in the county of Bohuslän said no. Now the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm has also said no.

    This is unacceptable self-censorship. A liberal society must be able to do two things at the same time. On the one hand, it must be able to defend Muslims’ right to freedom of religion and their right to build mosques. However, on the other hand, it is also permissible to ridicule Islam’s most foremost symbols – just like all other religions’ symbols. There is no opposition between these two goals. In fact, it is even the case that they presuppose each other."

    Most of the Muslim world however did not share the views expressed by the editor. The international fallout from the publication of Vilks' cartoon was severe. Several Islamic states condemned the cartoons. Muslims all over the world, including those in Sweden protested against the newspaper, the cartoon and the cartoonist. Over the years Vilks has received numerous death threats. An Iraqi group, believed to be an affiliate of al Qaeda had reportedly offered a reward of $100,000 for Vilks' killing in 2007. In March of 2010, seven people were arrested in Ireland who were allegedly plotting to murder Vilks. 

    The Reinfeldt administration has for most part tried to do the impossible i.e. acknowledge and assuage the anger of the Muslims offended by the cartoon while at the same time defend Vilks' right of freedom of expression. When this controversy erupted, PM Reinfeldt had said, "I think it's important to say two things. First, we are eager to ensure that Sweden remains a country in which Muslims and Christians, people who believe in God and people who don't believe in God, can live side by side in a spirit of mutual respect. We are also eager to stand up for freedom of expression, which is enshrined in the constitution and comes naturally to us, and which ensures that we do not make political decisions about what gets published in the newspapers. I want to make sure we keep things that way."

    This official stand taken by Sweden is seen by many in the Muslim world, as a defense for Vilks and his controversial work. That is what yesterday's email from the suicide bomber is referring to, which indicates that the damage done by Vilks' cartoon is not only not yet repaired but it's perhaps still a festering wound for many.

    The Swedish society's reputation for staunch support of freedom of expression is about to be put to yet another very public test, with the recent saga of WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, who is awaiting extradition to Sweden. Even though Stockholm maintains that they are not influenced in any way by the US, in their zealous pursuit of Assange, most of his supporters do not believe that story. Should Washington demand his extradition from Sweden to the US under the charges of 'espionage', would PM Reinfeldt stand up for Assange as he did for Vilks, and defend Assange's right of freedom of expression or would he co-operate with Washington and agree to extradite Assange to the US? That's a question only time can answer but needless to say that the world will be watching very closely. 

    ~ Gauri

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