This Saturday far-right Danish politician Rasmus Paludan set fire to a copy of the Holy Quran in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. The burning of the Holy book came at the conclusion of a rally organised by Paludan’s far-right Stran Kurs (Hard Line) party. The provocative gesture drew worldwide condemnation and increased diplomatic tension with Turkey.
Paludan gave an hour-long speech in which he attacked the Islamic faith and Swedish Immigration policy, then under heavy police protection, used a lighter to set fire to the Quran under the auspices of ‘freedom of expression’. He told the crowd “If you don’t think there should be freedom of expression, you have to live somewhere else”.
Paludan himself has a particularly sordid history. In 2021 he was found guilty of racism and defamation for which he was handed a suspended sentence. In the same year, a Danish tabloid newspaper conducted an investigation into Paludan. The investigation revealed that he had used his Discord server to talk with minors about hardcore fetish sex with children between the ages of 13 to 17. When faced with the claims Paludan did not deny them but refused to accept he had done anything wrong.
Under the Swedish constitution citizens are guaranteed freedom of expression and are allowed to express their views publicly as long as this does not involve incitement to violence or hate speech.
The Turkish government had made repeated calls for the protest to be stopped. In response, a scheduled visit by the Swedish defence minister was called off by the Turkish government. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement condemning the actions of Paludan, saying, that “permitting this anti-Islam act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values, under the guise of ‘freedom of expression’ is completely unacceptable”.
In a damage limitation exercise, the Prime Minister of Sweden Ulf Kristersson expressed his disapproval via twitter saying “Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of democracy. But what is legal is not necessarily appropriate. Burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act. I want to express my sympathy for all Muslims who are offended by what has happened in Stockholm today.”
Over the weekend, hundreds of Turks gathered outside the Swedish consulate in Istanbul and Ankara to protest. Demonstrators burned the Swedish flag and pictures of Paludan. More protests are planned to go ahead over the coming week.
Sweden is in a very precarious position as it made an application in 2022 to join the NATO military alliance after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which Turkey needs to approve. The two nations already had pre-existing tension due to Turkey demanding the deportation of critics of President Erdogan and many Kurdish dissidents which it deemed terrorists.
Despite the apologetic rhetoric, Sweden has a history of double standards relating to freedom of expression. In October 2022, Swedish Democrats official Rebecka Fallenkvist was suspended by her far-right party for calling the Jewish diarist Ann Frank “immoral”. Frank, a Jewish teenager, died in a Nazi Concentration camp in February 1945. Fallenqvist was subsequently subject of an internal investigation by Swedish Democrats, who called her comments “insensitive and inappropriate”.
Arab and Muslim nations were swift in their condemnation for Paludan and the Swedish government. Saudi Arabia condemned Sweden for allowing the far-right politician to burn the Quran. In a statement, the Saudi Foreign Ministry asserted “the kingdom’s firm position calling for the importance of spreading the values of dialogue, tolerance and coexistence, and rejecting hatred and extremism.”
The Foreign Ministry of Egypt denounced the Quran burning as a “disgraceful act” and warned that it “provokes the feelings of hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world.” Furthermore, the statement emphasised that “these extremist practices are inconsistent with the values of respect of others, freedom of belief, human rights and human fundamental freedoms.”
Qatar also denounced in the strongest terms Sweden’s permission to burn the Quran outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm.
Qatari Foreign Ministry affirmed in a statement “This heinous incident is an act of incitement and a serious provocation to the feelings of more than two billion Muslims in the world.”
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also added its voice to the slew of condemnation by emphasising “its rejection of all practices aimed at destabilising security and stability in contravention of human and moral values and principles.”
The situation has left Sweden in a diplomatic quagmire. On social media various calls have been made to boycott Swedish goods as a response to the burning of the Quran. The one thing that is certain is that Sweden’s bid for NATO membership hangs precariously in the balance.