In October, the ratification of Sweden’s NATO accession application by the Turkish parliament is expected. Sweden submitted the application last year, but besides the Kurdish issue, the controversial actions of burning the Quran have also had a negative impact on the relations between the two countries. The escalation of the conflict did not go without Russia’s interference.
CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS
Throughout September in the city of Malmo, Sweden, two events involving the symbolic burning of the Quran took place. According to media reports, approximately 150-200 people gathered per each event. The organizers were Salvan Momika and Salvan Nadzhem, refugees from Iraq. They had previously conducted similar actions in Sweden on June 28 near the central mosque in Stockholm, and twice in July near the Embassy of Iraq in the country’s capital. Earlier, on January 21, 2023, Danish far-right politician Rasmus Paludan, who holds Swedish citizenship, also burned the Quran, but this time in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm.
The burning of the Quran on September 3 and September 30 led to a series of clashes. Locals attempted to throw stones at both – the organizers and police vehicles, that transported Salvan Momika. Some individuals engaged in arson.
A significant aspect of these events is the symbolic demonstration of the Swedish flag during the desecration of the book.
As a result of these actions, Swedish intelligence agencies were compelled to raise the level of the terrorist threat from elevated (3) to high (4) on a five-point scale. Citizens are urged to be vigilant and prepared for disinformation.
REACTION OF ISLAMIC REPRESENTATIVES
Swedish arsonists show no intention of stopping and continue to exploit Sweden’s legislation on free assemblies to disrupt society: at the end of August, media reported that Salvan Momika filed 12 new applications for burning the Quran in September, and attempts are likely to continue into October.
Such actions have not only caused an international scandal but have also stirred the Muslim population worldwide against Sweden, directly impacting the country’s security and reputation. It is essential to note that these events began in January, during the negotiations between Turkey and Sweden regarding NATO membership, and now, in October, on the eve of the anticipated ratification of Sweden’s NATO accession by the Turkish Parliament, this activity is only escalating.
Since the first similar actions took place in January in front of the Turkish Embassy (at that time, Sweden’s NATO accession process was already in an active phase), the events immediately drew a response from the President of Turkey, Recep Erdogan, who sharply criticized the Swedish government:
“Those who allowed such a crime in front of our embassy can no longer expect mercy from us regarding their NATO membership application,” Erdogan stated. Turkey also canceled the visit to Ankara by the Swedish Minister of Defense, Paul Johnson.
During the events on July 20 (the second burning), hundreds of Iraqis stormed and set fire to the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad in response to information about the approval of the action. Following this, on July 21, the Iraqi government expelled the Swedish ambassador from the country.
Indications of the influence of Russian politics on the Quran burnings were noticed as early as winter. The instigator of the burning in front of the Turkish Embassy, Rasmus Paludan, told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that his protest was inspired by the former member of the nationalist party “Swedish Democrats,” Chang Frick. This figure was previously a freelance journalist for the video agency Ruptly, associated with the Russian propaganda channel RT (Russia Today).
Chang Frick confirmed the information about assisting Paludan with payment to obtain permission for the event but emphasized that he proposed organizing an event against Turkey in Sweden, and did not insist specifically on burning the Quran. The British Guardian also recalled that in one conversation with the New York Times in 2019, Frick jokingly mentioned working for Russia, displaying Russian rubles from his trip and saying, “Here’s my real boss! It’s Putin!”
Chang Frick. Source: Göteborgs-Posten
Following the “standard scenario,” such actions that compromise democratic governments, divide society in EU countries, and complicate NATO expansion are vividly and widely covered by Russian media. Earlier, USCC had already discussed similar tactics by Russia in the Czech Republic, where conflicts were fueled by Russian publications.
Analysts from the Swedish Psychological Defense Agency (MPF), a unit of the Ministry of Defense of Sweden, documented around a million publications about Sweden and the burning of the Quran since the end of June. Manipulative headlines and theses were used, suggesting that the Swedish government “supports the burning of the Quran” and “is an enemy of Muslims.” Analysts noticed that the materials were published in Russian media outlets in the West, such as Russia Today and Sputnik, even though they were created in Arabic.
Similar narratives were actively spread by federal Russian agencies, including TASS.
“Stockholm police allowed the behavior of Quran-burning rally”. Source: TASS
Representatives of the Swedish government acknowledged Russia’s presence in this story:
“Actors supported by Russia actively spread inappropriate statements that the Swedish state is behind the desecration of sacred books. Fostering the campaign is a cheap and effective way for Russia to weaken NATO and its partners. At a time when global attention should be focused on Russia’s ongoing brutality in Ukraine, anger is being stirred up against Sweden,” noted the Minister of Civil Defense of Sweden, Karl-Oscar Bollin, on July 26.
Interestingly, in Russia itself, at least two copies of the sacred Muslim book were burned just this year. One of the burnings occurred after controversial protests against the construction of a mosque in Moscow, as previously reported by the USCC. However, Russia did not receive a reaction similar to what Sweden experienced.
No one deliberately fueled or spread anti-Muslim narratives against the Russian government in response to the burnings in Russia. Even the Turkish government chose not to comment on such actions despite opposition calls to react as sharply as to the events in Sweden.
CONCLUSIONS FOR SWEDEN
The Swedish government has so far failed to prevent mass actions that harm the country’s reputation. The main reason lies in Swedish legislation. Previously, the police rejected applications for events in Stockholm where the Quran was to be burned, but the courts overturned these decisions as they interfered with the constitutional right to freedom of assembly.
An effective solution for the country in this case could be legislative prohibition on burning the Quran or other sacred books. Not only the Swedish government but also Denmark, where several Quran burning actions have taken place, consider this.
“In this way, the proposal will provide for punishment for, for example, the public burning of the Quran, Bible, or Torah,” said Danish Justice Minister Peter Hummelgaard at a press conference.
Drawing on the experience of Sweden, the Danish government rejected protests from some opposition parties in the country, arguing that such a prohibition would violate freedom of speech. Democratic countries are beginning to understand the vulnerabilities and flaws in their systems that Russia directly exploits, especially in noticing these connections.
Protests in Pakistan after the burning of the Quran in Sweden, January 2023, Source: LB.UA, Photo: EPA/UPG
The story of desecration of the Quran in Sweden vividly demonstrated how hostile propaganda can exploit a democratic society to undermine the country’s security and complicate its international relations.
At the time when all possible international rights are violated and war crimes are committed in the very center of Europe by a member of the UN Security Council, all free countries should carefully review the issue of their own security: investigate cases of internal provocations and traces of Russia in them to protect themselves from the tentacles of a terrorist country.