Pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets waste no time to use the burning of the Quran in Sweden and Denmark to sling accusations of religious intolerance. Portraying Russia as the protector of Islam diverges from previous disinformation attempts to vilify Muslims and push the narrative of ‘Islamisation’ of Europe… When small groups of provocateurs and far-right activists in Sweden and Denmark recently gathered to burn pages of the Quran, they were exploiting a long-standing question among democratic governments: what is protected speech, and when can it be restricted? Resolving such a dilemma requires the utmost sensitivity, fairness, and tact.
Freedom of speech is a fundamental value that underpins Western democracies. But walking the fine line of protecting the right to free speech and protecting people the abusing freedom of speech to do intentional harm is no easy task. Whether the topic is burning the American flag as a form of protest in the United States or displaying the Nazi symbol in Germany, deciding where to draw the line between freedom of expression and needless provocation can perplex even the most even-minded policymakers.
Source — EUvsDiDInfo — 22 August, 2023 —
Table of Contents
So when small groups of provocateurs and far-right activists in Sweden and Denmark recently gathered to burn pages of the Quran, they were exploiting a long-standing question among democratic governments: what is protected speech, and when can it be restricted? Resolving such a dilemma requires the utmost sensitivity, fairness, and tact.
Russian state-controlled outlets are not know to exhibit any of these qualities. The notorious Kremlin weapon of deception, RT in English, wasted no time in alleging that the Swedish and Danish governments’ consent to the burnings as free speech was a straight-up attack on Islam. Yet they remained blissfully ignorant of the fact that there is a prolific public debate in these countries weighting the right to freedom of religion versus the right to free speech, showing exactly how difficult it can be for a society wrestle with such a sensitive issue. But this openness of debate is crucial for building consensus and crafting policy. By contrast, it is hard to imagine such healthy debate taking place on Russia’s own increasingly restrictive information and media environment.
Meanwhile, RT Arabic pointed to the courteous words of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who noted that ‘disrespecting the Quran is a crime in Russia, unlike in some other countries.’ Putin also said, ‘The Patriarch of Russia assures us that Muslims are our brothers… We know that in some other countries they act differently, and some of them do not respect people’s religious feelings. And they say it’s not a crime.’ This odd bout of the Patriarch’s apparent humanitarianism and religious tolerance stands in clear juxtaposition with his unflinching support to Russia’s unholy war against Ukraine.
Putin’s gracious solicitude towards Muslim feelings jars against what pro-Kremlin outlets and commentators have said in the past. They have not hesitated to compare immigrants to Europe, many from Muslim-majority countries, as ‘barbarians’ or to issue dark warnings about ‘the full-throttle Islamisation’ of Europe. The common thread of Kremlin is a shameless readiness to use Muslims to attack the West, whether by demonising them or by posing as their protectors. It is all the more shameless, considering Russia’s well-documented xenophobia and intolerance toward Muslim immigrants from Central Asia.
In fact, Russian disinformation about Islam, and more broadly about the related topic of immigration to Europe, often hits at several of the five most common pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives: ‘the elites versus the people’, ‘threatened values’, ‘lost sovereignty / threatened national identity’, and ‘imminent collapse’. We disentangle the disinfo below.
Beware those pointing to supposed puppet-masters
The first narrative, the elites versus the people, alleges that a nebulous group of puppet-masters is conspiring to thwart the will of decent, normal folk. Regarding Islam, this narrative usually posits that anyone from George Soros to EU political elites are using Islam or Muslim immigrants to attack other EU countries or to destroy aspects of European culture.
Speaking of that imaginary devil, one story claimed that Soros and mainstream German political parties want to use ‘mass immigration’ to destroy the traditional way of life by constructing a multicultural society. Another article alleged that France and German have conspired to use immigration to weaken Italy, a notion that we have debunked. And an RT segment alleged that European elites are complicit in an ongoing genocide against Christians in the Middle East, and are using Muslims ‘to do their dirty job’.
“Barbarians at the gates”
Regarding Muslims, Kremlin propagandists have often poured together the two common narratives of ‘threatened values’ and ‘threatened national identity’. The toxic potion that results is a harmful mega-narrative, ‘threatened national identity and values’.
If one word sums up this mega-narrative, it is ‘Islamisation’. The reader may recall the Sputnik article above, under ‘elites versus the people’, that referred to George Soros. Disinformation spreaders love to mix and match their narratives. But the term ‘Islamisation’ has a small but special place in pro-Kremlin propaganda directed at Europe, as our database attests.
Examples of pro-Kremlin commentators trying to spook Europeans with the word include Sputnik World raising the spectre of the ‘full-throttle Islamisation’ of Europe. Another is this article contemplating whether Middle Eastern and North Africa immigration to Germany is the reason for rising anti-Semitism there. Pro-Kremlin outlets have been pushing this disinformation narrative for years, and we have already debunked it before.
Disinformation spreaders like to exploit the vagueness of the term ‘migrant’ to employ their Muslim-hating rhetoric while maintaining plausible deniability. For example, one commentator referred to immigrants to Europe as worse than the ‘barbarians’ who overthrew the Roman Empire. The conflation between the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘Muslim’ was clear enough even without saying so openly.
The imminent collapse is always just around the corner
Our final common Kremlin narrative regarding Islam fits into that of Europe’s allegedly inevitable ‘imminent collapse’ – a collapse that has been imminent for years. It tends to have an apocalyptic tone that asserts that immigration in general, including immigration from Muslim-majority countries, will eventually destroy Europe as we know it.
This News Front article, for example, claimed that Muslims are ‘enslaving’ Europe with the tacit consent of European leaders, in a neat cross-over with the ‘elites versus the people’ narrative described above. In addition, a commentary asserted that the US is using immigration from the Middle East to carry out the ‘complete destruction of Europe’.
Finally, Russian propagandist and demagogue Aleksandr Dugin, revelling in his premature judgement that Covid had destroyed the West, celebrated the supposed collapse of ‘the world of office workers and beauty bloggers, transgender persons and climate activists, human right defenders and hipsters, migrants [emphasis added] and feminists’. In this dark and primal world view, immigrants are just more monsters in a fantastical pantheon of degenerates intent on destroying all that is natural and good.
Bait-and-switch: from Islam’s haters to Islam’s protectors
By now, you may have noticed that around 2020, stories about Europe’s ‘Islamisation’ suddenly declined in pro-Kremlin media outlets. Instead, the subject turned to Poland’s supposed mistreatment of immigrants trafficked through Belarus or to the made-up misdeeds of Ukrainian immigrants in Europe.
Having monitored and catalogued pro-Kremlin disinformation for years, we have an inkling as to why the Kremlin seems to have made a U-turn in its narratives about Islam and Muslims. Any issue that is contentious in the West is fair game for the pro-Kremlin disinformation peddlers to be used as a wedge. Changing the tone of the narrative 180 degrees is not uncommon for the Kremlin. It is the sort of broad-based and relatively sudden change in editorial policy that only a vast media disinformation ecosystem run by an authoritarian government could make.
Unfortunately for them, a track record – our track record,– still exists. And it shows that until fairly recently, pro-Kremlin commentators played a double game. On the one hand, they wanted the Muslim world to think of Russia as their friend. But they also appealed to xenophobes in Europe by demonising immigrants in general and particularly those from Muslim-majority countries.
According to the Kremlin, the EU is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. It is either evil if it refuses to take in immigrants, or doomed if it hosts them. That basic dynamic fits into the most ‘mega’ of the Kremlin’s mega-narratives: the West is always to blame. Tactics may change, but the fundamental goal remains the same.