On January 21, 2022, Rasmus Paludan, a Swedish-Danish politician from the far-right Stram Kurs (Hard Line) party, gave a speech condemning Islam outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm then burned a copy of the Quran. Rasmus Paludan has previously organized numerous rallies, burned Qurans, and managed countless anti-Islam demonstrations. In 2020, a Danish court sentenced Paludan to one month in prison and two months supervised release on 14 charges, including racism, spreading defamatory information, and dangerous driving.
Following the Quran burning, the European Commission criticized the incident, noting that hatred of religions is contrary to EU values. The commission has also called on Sweden to take action. “We are aware of the incident and the reaction of the Swedish authorities,” Johannes Bahrke, a spokesman for the commission, said at a daily press conference in Brussels.
The provocative protest was condemned throughout the Islamic world and strained bilateral relations between Türkiye and Sweden. Nationalists and Islamists in Türkiye had gathered outside the Swedish Consulate General in Istanbul and the Swedish Embassy to demonstrate against the Quran burning. They chanted anti-Western slogans and burned Swedish flags. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also strongly condemned the Quran burning. “You must respect the faith of Muslims. If you do not show this respect, I am sorry, but you will not get support from us for the NATO membership.”
Finland and Sweden simultaneously submitted their official letters of application to join NATO on May 18, 2022, due to the emerging threat posed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. NATO Heads of State and Government invited Finland and Sweden to join the Alliance at the Madrid Summit on June 29, 2022. The accession protocols for both countries were signed on July 5, following the completion of accession talks. All Allies must now ratify the protocols according to their national procedures.
To date, all NATO allies except Hungary and Türkiye have ratified Sweden’s and Finland’s accession protocol to NATO. Victor Urban, the Hungarian prime minister, told reporters that Hungary would approve Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership in early 2023. But Türkiye could accept Finland into NATO without Sweden citing Sweden’s refusal to extradite to Türkiye individuals it claims are linked to terrorism. As recent developments caused a crisis between Sweden and Türkiye, Sweden’s NATO application process has been “paused” following Türkiye’s anger over a Quran-burning incident. Although Russia was not a visible player in the developments during the process, the point reached was exactly how Russia wanted it. So how did Russia achieve this?
According to Swedish media, Russia is behind the Quran burning because the Swedish journalist Chang Frick, who has worked as a freelancer for the Russian propaganda channel RT and its subsidiary Ruptly, paid the Danish far-right activist Rasmus Paludan to burn the Quran near the Turkish embassy in Sweden publicly. Rasmus Paludan told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter on Tuesday that the burning of the Quran in Sweden was not his idea. He claims that the suggestion to travel to Sweden and burn the Muslim holy book came from Chang Frick, a journalist from the far-right media outlet Exakt24. Paludan said he received help from Frick with the payment required to process the demonstration’s permit application with the police. Frick confirmed to Dagens Nyheter that he had paid the fee. However, Frick tells the daily Expressen that he did not know in advance that Paludan intended to burn the Quran. “I would not encourage anyone to burn religious scriptures or do it myself,” Frick told Expressen.
The burning of the Quran timing is particularly significant as it came shortly before the planned visit of Sweden’s Defense Minister Pal Jonson to Türkiye, which was canceled after the protest was announced. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova has previously said that if Sweden and Finland join NATO, it could lead to “negative implications” for peace in Europe.
Although it cannot be proven with certainty that Russia is behind this incident, the strained relations between Türkiye and Sweden and Türkiye’s announcement that it will not support Sweden’s membership in NATO, citing the Quran burning incident, serve Russia’s interests the most. European countries host many Muslim refugees from North Africa and the Middle East. The resurgence of the far right in European politics has led to a rise in anti-refugee political discourse in European countries. Under these circumstances, provocative actions such as burning the holy Qur’an, which can provoke refugees, pave the way for autocratic leaders such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who uses Islam as a political tool, to exploit such incidents for their political goals. It is no secret that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin currently enjoy excellent relations. Erdoğan acts as Putin’s Trojan horse in NATO. Therefore, it can be said that Russia is behind the Koran burning in Sweden, exploiting the conditions created by the rising far-right political discourse in Europe, causing a crisis between Türkiye and Sweden, and trying to delay Sweden’s NATO membership by Erdoğan. With such actions, Russia aims to create a situation within NATO and weaken the unity and solidarity of NATO. What the European countries should do here is not to allow such actions, taking into account the actors behind such actions against the Holy Books and their possible consequences that can harm the relations between the EU countries and the Muslim world.
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