The Swedish authorities have accused Russia of trying to influence how Qur’an burnings are viewed around the world through disinformation campaigns written in Arabic. It is believed to be part of an attempt to disrupt Sweden’s Nato membership process, which is still waiting for approval by Turkey and Hungary.
Sweden’s psychological defence agency, part of the Ministry of Defence, said that the Russian state-controlled media outlets RT and Sputnik had published a series of articles in Arabic, falsely claiming that the Swedish government supported Qur’an burning. Since the end of June, the authorities have logged about a million similar posts in Arabic and other languages. The warning from the agency – a cold war-era body brought back last year to fight foreign disinformation as tensions with Russia escalated – follows another burning in a spate of such desecrations in Sweden.
Two Iraqi men, Salwan Momika and Salwan Najem, who have been involved in previous incidents, were permitted to burn a Qur’an outside parliament, prompting outrage and further intensifying the diplomatic crisis between Sweden and Muslim countries around the world.
The Swedish government is under mounting global pressure to prevent further protests but has so far ruled out changing the country’s far-ranging freedom of expression laws.
Mikael Östlund, a spokesperson for the psychological defence agency, said that since Momika and Najem burned a Qur’an outside Stockholm Mosque on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha in June, disinformation online had increased exponentially. Among those spreading the false narratives, he said, were states and Islamist extremists.
“They repeat narratives that Sweden supports the burning of the Qur’an and that Sweden is an Islamophobic country and hostile against Islam,” he said. “We’re not very surprised because Russia is using narratives that make Sweden look bad and make it harder to join Nato.”
He added: “RT and Sputnik – those channels have had several posts with those narratives since June and July in Arabic. So obviously they want to make themselves heard among Arabic-speaking people.”
As they were state-run channels, it indicated that the strategy was coming from the top, he said. “Everything is approved by the Kremlin so it comes from the government of Russia. The narrative is in line with what the Kremlin want them to do.”
As the pattern of disinformation builds over time, it becomes easier for people to believe that the false narratives are true, he said.
The Swedish prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, alluded to foreign actors playing a role in the Qur’an burnings, accusing outsiders of using the country as “a stage for spreading hateful messages”.
Speaking in Stockholm on Tuesday, hours after the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation condemned the protests and called for United Nations intervention, he said such acts were “dragging Sweden into international conflicts”.
He was also forced to address the behaviour of the chair of parliament’s justice committee, Richard Jomshof of the far-right Sweden Democrats, who was widely condemned for making Islamophobic comments about the prophet Muhammad.
Valentyna Shapovalova, a PhD fellow at the University of Copenhagen who studies Russian propaganda and disinformation, said the Qur’an burnings in Sweden were “difficult to avoid” across Russian media, where they were reported on almost daily.
“Russia is definitely trying to use the Qur’an burning in its propaganda narrative, which is built around the idea that, in general, the west and western values are corrupt and the west is in decay,” she said. “In some media stories Qur’an burnings have been used as evidence of a liberal western world that’s gone too far.”
While Qur’an burning has also taken place in Denmark, the focus had been more on Sweden, especially since it submitted its Nato application last year. The incidents were being used as a “symbolic stepping stone” by Russia – both domestically to Russian Muslims and globally, said Shapovalova.
Through propaganda articles written in Arabic, Russia was “trying to promote this tension between the so-called democratic west and people in Arabic-speaking countries”, she said.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is expected to visit Turkey later this month. “This will place quite a big role in the way state-aligned media focuses so much on the Qur’an burnings,” said Shapovalova.
Maria Brock, a research fellow at Malmö University, said Russian disinformation narratives about Sweden were being picked up by Russian bloggers, journalists and media, and by Swedes on Flashback, a Reddit-like forum which describes itself as “Sweden’s biggest forum for freedom of speech and opinion and independent thinking”.
Many of these narratives were centred on spreading anti-Muslim sentiment, she said.
Russia had two sets of motivations for targeting Sweden, she said. “More strategically, it is about Sweden joining Nato and creating dissent.” In the longer term, she argued, Russia was hoping to question the nature of truth or to sow distrust in traditional news outlets.
“This goes back to discussions people had around [the former US president, Donald] Trump the first time round: ‘Is this news? Is this fake news? It could be true, it feels true’.”
Source : The Guardian