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Thousands of people in Sweden show the right way to respond to Islamophobia

It's only January 2, but Sweden has already taken a strong lead in the competition for "most awesome country 2015" by showing how decent people should respond to Islamophobic violence. Thousands of people turned out in Stockholm today for a rally supporting Muslims, in response to arson attacks on three Swedish mosques last week.

A mosque in the city of Eskilstuna had been firebombed on Christmas day, injuring five worshippers inside. A few days later, a second mosque in the southern city of Eslov was damaged in a fire that police say they suspect was also arson. And on New Years day, a mosque in Uppsala was hit by a molotov cocktail, but did not catch fire.

The day after the Uppsala mosque was attacked, local residents "love bombed" it, covering the entrance of the building with paper hearts and messages of support.

The demonstration and "love bombing" were a powerful way for ordinary Swedes to reject racism and show support for Muslims. But the march also carried broader political significance, because it showed that Swedes felt a duty to publicly reaffirm the country's identity as a place that is tolerant and welcoming towards immigrants.

In many countries, anti-immigrant populism dominates the public conversation about immigration not because it necessarily represents the majority view, but because people with more moderate and tolerant views don't make it a priority to speak up publicly. These demonstrations suggest that Sweden may be different: thousands of people took to the streets to say that they are not willing to stay silent, and will not allow extremists to dominate the debate.

And that's important, because the mosque attacks come at a time of rising tension over Islamophobia and immigration in Sweden. Omar Mustafa, the head of Sweden's Islamic Association, told Swedish newspaper The Local that he believes Islamophobia is getting worse. "It's not just on the internet, this is happening in real life," he said, noting that there had been 14 attacks on Swedish mosques in the last year.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is also on the rise. The far-right Sweden Democrat party won 13 percent of the vote in a recent election after campaigning on an anti-immigration and anti-refugee platform. Last month, the Sweden Democrats nearly managed to cause the collapse of the center-left coalition government, and promised to make the next elections a referendum on immigration policy. However, on December 27 the government announced an eight-year agreement with center-right opposition parties that cut out the Sweden Democrats, preventing the far right party from forcing its agenda.

The rise of Islamist extremism is also a growing concern in Sweden. It is estimated that the country has one of the highest rates of ISIS recruits per capita in Europe, and in November an ISIS defector claimed that the terrorist group has sleeper cells in Sweden awaiting orders.

However, Sweden's government has refused to exploit fears of extremism for political gain. The Culture and Democracy minister, who marched in today's rally, said that Sweden is "still a paradise" for immigrants and that "knowledge is the best vaccination against prejudice."

Prime Minister Stephen Löfven told the local TT news agency that "in Sweden no one should have to be afraid when they practice their religion," and promised to increase funding for security in places of worship.

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