The international consequences of Rasmus Paludan's Quran burning

Illustration - Analysis - Quran/NATO
8 min read
07 February, 2023

Rasmus Paludan leads Stram Kurs, or Hard Line, a far-right, anti-Islam Danish political party founded in 2017. To enrage Muslims worldwide and fan the flames of bigotry, he has repeatedly burned Qurans, including in Muslim-majority neighbourhoods and during Ramadan.

After one of his Quran-burning demonstrations in 2020, the Swedish authorities banned Paludan (now a dual Danish-Swedish citizen) from Sweden for two years. Yet, on 21 January, the Stram Kurs leader burned a copy of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. Swift and strong condemnation quickly came from a host of governments across the Islamic world.

The fact that Swedish authorities provided the Islamophobe with police protection as he carried out this hateful act has dramatically increased tensions in Ankara-Stockholm relations. Turkey’s Foreign Minister summoned Sweden’s ambassador to Ankara and explained that Turkey strongly condemns this “provocative act, which is clearly a hate crime” and “insults to sacred values cannot be defended under the guise of democratic rights”.

"The fact that Swedish authorities provided the Islamophobe with police protection as he carried out this hateful act has dramatically increased tensions in Ankara-Stockholm relations"

Ankara also cancelled a visit that Swedish Defence Minister Pal Jonson had planned to Turkey for discussions about Ankara’s position toward Sweden’s path to NATO membership. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has indefinitely delayed an important meeting in Brussels, which was intended for discussions about Sweden and Finland joining the Transatlantic alliance.

Given that countries can only join the Transatlantic alliance with every member-state’s approval, Turkey’s sustained opposition to Sweden’s entry has been the main barrier to the Nordic country becoming NATO’s newest addition since Sweden formally applied for membership in May 2022. Hungary is the only other member of the alliance yet to ratify Sweden’s membership.

Further delays in Sweden's entry into NATO

Erdogan’s government is now more firmly opposed to Sweden’s ascension to the alliance. Consequently, the prospects of Sweden joining NATO in the immediate future have dimmed, with ramifications for Europe’s security architecture almost one year into the Ukraine war.

On 1 February, Turkey’s president reaffirmed that Ankara will reject Sweden’s entry into NATO as long as the Nordic country’s government continues permitting such Quran-burning demonstrations. “Sweden, don’t even bother! As long as you allow my holy book, the Quran, to be burned and torn, and you do so together with your security forces, we will not say ‘yes’ to your entry into NATO,” said Erdogan in a recent speech.

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“Erdogan does not seem ready to relinquish his opposition to Sweden joining NATO,” Dr Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The New Arab. “The burning of the Quran will only strengthen his position because it will anger Turks and harden their support for Erdogan's policy.”

This tense episode is an “iconic moment and a historical inflection point” comparable to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy of the mid-2000s, according to Matthew Bryza, who was the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia from 2005 until 2009.

Sweden will pay a cost for Paludan’s Quran burning, though how much remains to be seen. Much will depend on how Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson reacts. In any event, Bryza believes that without a “multiparty massive condemnation of this heinous act by Sweden’s political leadership” the Scandinavian country’s entry into NATO will be “delayed for quite some time.” The former US diplomat called this development a “negative moment, strategically and morally”.

This week’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Turkey and Syria, which took thousands of lives, may offer Sweden an opportunity to demonstrate goodwill toward Ankara. In response to the natural disaster, Stockholm quickly announced its plans to contribute to relief efforts via the European Union and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Yet, the extent to which these moves have the potential to impact Ankara’s calculations about Sweden’s ascension to NATO is unclear.

Far-right Danish-Swedish politician Rasmus Paludan stages Quran burnings in Muslim neighbourhoods as part of his political campaign. [Getty]

From Turkey’s perspective, consensus among all NATO member-states is important to the process of new states joining the alliance. “If the previous and existing candidacies of the other countries are considered, all individual members must be satisfied with the contribution of the candidate to NATO’s capacity, commitment to solidarity, and resilience,” Dr Murat Aslan, a researcher at the SETA Foundation and a faculty member at Hasan Kalyoncu University, told TNA.

“Suppose a Turkish soldier would sacrifice his/her life for the survivability of Sweden within the frame of shared values.” Without Sweden complying “with the prerequisites of being a subject of the [NATO] Charter” many Turks would question why the country became a member of the alliance, according to Dr Aslan.

Although this Quran-burning protest has gravely exacerbated bilateral tensions, the root of Ankara’s problems with Stockholm concerns the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the freedoms that the group enjoys in Sweden. PKK-related tensions between Turkey and Sweden are nothing new.

For decades, many Turks have maintained that one of the key reasons why their country has not successfully crushed the PKK is because Sweden and other European states provide the group with “rear bases.” Turkey’s obstruction of Sweden’s entry into NATO is primarily about this issue.

"The root of Ankara's problems with Stockholm concerns the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the freedoms that the group enjoys in Sweden"

At the same time, a large majority of the Swedish public would oppose Stockholm taking the steps that Ankara maintains are prerequisites for Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s membership. These include extraditing certain individuals whom Ankara accuses of terrorism-related crimes to Turkey.

“Burning sacred texts always makes people look mean and uncivilised. So too does the hanging of an effigy of Erdogan. All the same, I don’t suspect that this exhibition of angry bigotry by some Swedes will change the basic disagreement between the two countries. Eighty percent of Swedes oppose sending back the Kurdish activists to Turkey,” added Dr Landis.

The grander geopolitical picture

For Washington officials, a high priority is tightening NATO unity against Moscow and bringing new countries such as Sweden into the alliance. However, the Biden administration now faces an increasingly difficult dilemma as the White House works to convince Turkey to support Sweden and Finland’s entry into NATO.

Experts argue that Ankara eventually allowing Sweden to join the alliance would become realistic if the Biden administration agrees to certain concessions to Turkey. The domestic political scene in Turkey can’t be overlooked. With the presidential election set for 14 May, Erdogan has an interest in bolstering his position in these upcoming months by standing strong against Western states that have, in various ways, supported the PKK and its Syrian offshoot, the Peoples’ Protection Unit (YPG). Blocking Sweden’s entry into NATO is one way to do so.

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Most likely, if Ankara would sign on to supporting Sweden’s ascension into the alliance before 14 May, the US and other NATO members would need to give in to Turkey on some sensitive files such as Syria or the potential F-16 sale. Whether the Biden administration would do so is another question.

“Much will depend on the United States and its position toward the YPG,” Dr Landis told TNA. “Erdogan's main concern is Washington’s support for and arming of the YPG in Syria. Should the United States withdraw support for the Kurds in Syria, Erdogan is likely to soften his position toward Sweden joining NATO.”

For the leadership in Washington and Stockholm, the timing of Paludan’s latest Quran-burning act is horrible. It also raises questions about the potential roles of hidden actors in this episode.

“It’s so obvious that this was a provocation aimed at encouraging Turkey not to ratify Sweden’s membership,” observed Bryza. “It makes me think that there are other international hands behind this provocation that either encouraged or maybe even provided other incentives for this Danish provocateur to commit this heinous act.”

The flags of Finland, NATO, and Sweden during a ceremony to mark Sweden's and Finland's application for membership in Brussels, on 18 May 2022. [Getty]

Indeed, Sweden’s media has been suggesting Russian involvement in the Quran burning as part of a wider effort to sabotage NATO’s plans to bring Sweden into the alliance. Chang Frick is a pro-Putin journalist with a previous RT affiliation who, according to Paludan, not only came up with the idea of burning a copy of the Quran outside Turkey’s embassy in Sweden but also paid the fee for the permit that the demonstration required.

Late last month, Kristersson labelled the anti-Islam activists behind the Quran-burning events as “useful idiots” helping foreign powers who wish to harm Sweden’s interests amid its current efforts to enter NATO. “We have seen how foreign actors, even state actors, have used these manifestations to inflame the situation in a way that is directly harmful to Swedish security,” explained the Swedish prime minister.

Russia’s government denies having anything to do with the Quran burning in Sweden. Frick admits to his role in Paludan’s “free speech” event but denies that his motivations are related to Sweden’s NATO aspirations.

"The Biden administration now faces an increasingly difficult dilemma as the White House works to convince Turkey to support Sweden and Finland's entry into NATO"

Sweden's image

Ultimately, there will be much anger toward Sweden not only in Turkey but also across the Middle East and outside the region. It’s essentially inevitable that the Nordic country’s standing in the eyes of the Islamic world will greatly suffer.

“The desecration of the Quran will indeed create a wave of reactions,” explained Dr Aslan. “Even though such acts are not new, there will be prejudice in Muslim minds. The danger is to offer a base for radical ideas…This reality will also hamper the negative perception toward Sweden and the Westerners.”

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Emily Milliken is Senior Vice President and Lead Analyst at Askari Associates. Follow her on Twitter: @EmilyMPrzy