A handful of political provocations are putting pressure on Sweden’s ties with the Muslim world, its NATO ambitions and its values of liberty and tolerance.
In a nutshell
- Koran burning in Sweden is carried out by a small minority
- The Muslim world has reacted in anger, worsening ties with Sweden
- The crisis threatens the country’s fundamental values of liberty and tolerance
After a series of Koran burnings this year, Sweden has seen heated debates at home and outcry in the Muslim world, along with risks to its economic and geopolitical interests. It has also grappled with a more fundamental question: can freedom of speech coexist with tolerance?
Sweden today has about 10.5 million inhabitants, of which some 20 percent are born abroad, including over 14 percent from countries outside the European Union. Of these, there are an estimated 800,000 Swedes with Muslim religious or cultural backgrounds – many of them who now feel offended by the recent burnings.
In January, Rasmus Paludan – a Danish-Swedish, anti-immigrant politician– carried out a high-profile Koran burning outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, leading to protests in several Muslim countries. Weeks later, Swedish police denied applications for two public gatherings to hold Koran burnings outside the Turkish and Iraqi embassies, again involving Mr. Paludan.
Authorities stood their ground, pointing to the risk of terrorist acts in retribution if the burnings were allowed to be carried out. A security review concluded that Sweden’s threat assessment was affected by previous Koran burnings, and that the risk of future attacks would be escalated further. Nevertheless, the decisions to reject the two applications were appealed. Both the Administrative Court and the Court of Appeals sided against the police: the threats to order and security alleged by authorities needed a clearer connection to the planned gatherings or their immediate surroundings to justify a refusal of permission. Police are now exploring whether burning a Koran outside a mosque can be deemed incitement against an ethnic group.
Legal experts are divided over whether and how Sweden could seek to limit the burning of holy books.
In June, Salwan Momika, an Iraqi man, carried out a Koran burning outside a mosque in Stockholm, and several similar actions followed. This provoked more protests against Sweden abroad, demands from Muslim countries to ban Koran burnings and even warnings from al-Qaeda in terrorist propaganda.
The terror threat level in Sweden has now been raised to “high,” fourth on the five-point scale, owing not to any specific event but increased risks over time in the wake of the burnings, according to Swedish security forces. The government has also analyzed the legal situation surrounding Koran burnings and similar actions linked to Sweden’s security.
Who is behind the burnings?
Of the 10-plus million Swedes, only a few have applied to burn religious books. One of them is Mr. Paludan, the Danish-born lawyer and right-wing extremist. In addition to the episodes this year, he provoked riots in several Swedish cities in the spring of 2022 after burning copies of the Koran during an “election tour” for his political party, Stram Kurs (“Hard Line”).
Over Easter weekend, he visited various cities, leaving riots, vandalism and violence in his wake, mainly directed at the police. Over 300 incidents were reported, over half considered severe or to seriously affect the police working environment. Several people have already been sentenced or prosecuted for their involvement in the riots, and investigations are ongoing regarding tens of further suspects. Along with Salwan Momika, an Iraqi with a Swedish residence permit, these two men account for the majority of all applications to demonstrate in the form of Koran burnings. No native-born Swedes have applied so far.
Mr. Momika is a Christian Iraqi who came to Sweden in 2018 and received refugee status three years later. Since then, he has been active on social media, spreading publicity about his Koran burnings. There is also media speculation about his background in an Iraqi militia with close ties to Iran. He has claimed he burns the Koran because he wants the scripture banned in all of Sweden and will continue until that goal is reached. He has added that he “does not want [his] demonstration to be negative to Sweden’s request to join NATO.”
Mr. Paludan’s rationale has more to do with singling out the presence of Muslims as a major problem and pressuring them to leave the country. He describes Islam as being incompatible with the West. Referring to the Turkish president, he has declared, “The way I see it, [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is a liar, and it is his fault that it is necessary to burn a Koran to teach him how freedom of speech works.”
The underlying motivations and financial backing (aside from social media revenues) for the incidents are very unclear. Some have claimed that Russia is somehow behind the burnings, in a bid to disrupt Stockholm from joining NATO. Another theory blames Iran, seeking to pressure Sweden into a prisoner exchange. A third charges Sweden with generally being hostile to Muslims, seeing it as a legitimate target for terrorism. More personal for Mr. Paludan is anti-immigrant sentiment – and, for Mr. Momika, perhaps a desire to express a greater freedom of opinion than offered in his country of birth, Iraq. Both appear to be driven by hatred toward Muslims and the Koran. Regardless of the reasons, the events have reverberated outside of Sweden.
Reactions outside Sweden
Many Muslims reacted in anger to the incidents. President Erdogan threatened once again to stop Sweden from joining NATO. In Iraq, the Swedish embassy in Baghdad was attacked by locals, and in Beirut, Lebanon, similar attempts were made but failed. At one point, an official at the Swedish consulate in Izmir, Turkey, was seriously injured.
In July, Iraqi Communications Minister Hayam al-Yasiri announced a ban on business with all Swedish companies. This came after Iraq revoked a work permit for the telecommunications company Ericsson and its employees operating in the country. This was later resolved, and Ericsson and other Swedish businesses were able to continue their Iraqi operations.
All this led the foreign ministers of 57 Muslim countries to urge the Scandinavian countries to take tough action. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation said it “deplored the recurrence of acts of desecration [of the Koran] and deeply regrets … [the] failure to take the necessary measures to prevent such acts in Sweden and Denmark.” It called on members to take “measures they deem appropriate,” including recalling their ambassadors for consultation.
Today, threats are also coming from violent Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda and others. The organization published threats on its official media channel, describing Sweden as a small, despicable country and calling on Muslims to take “revenge” over the Koran burnings.
Within Sweden, the media is regularly filled with commentary on the Koran burnings: arguments for and against granting the permits, defenses of freedom of expression, security assessments and various proposed solutions. Muslims in Sweden organized a large, quiet and dignified counterdemonstration, without a fight. Many Swedes argue that just because burning scripture is protected by the constitution, that does not mean one has to do so. It is seen as a matter of respect for another’s culture.
Legal experts are divided over whether and how Sweden could seek to limit the burning of holy books. Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson has said that his government is not looking at limiting free speech, but is examining how to factor national security considerations into the demonstration permitting process.
In a debate about Koran burnings, Archbishop Martin Modeus stated that while Christian theology does not back limits on the freedom of speech, it does support restricting hatred worldwide. The bishop expressed deep compassion for Muslims and emphasized sanctity, respect and freedom of speech as three of the most important values in weighing the issue. Cultures differ in what they consider sacred; freedom of speech laws vary between states. But the desire to receive and give respect unites most people.
Freedom of speech is not the problem, but disrespect and hate. It is impossible to legislate against bad judgment. Moreover, those who advocate hate are inventive: if one path is blocked, they inevitably find another. The practice of respect is vital for any good society, and most agree that very few individuals actually want to spread hatred. In a healthy society, freedom of expression should be combined with respect and space for the sacred.
Disinformation from other countries has escalated since the Koran burnings. Many actors in Muslim countries, as well as in Russian media, have claimed that the Swedish government and Swedish society endorsed the burnings. Nothing could be more false; permits are issued by police, who cannot deny a protest because of its ideological content. What is often left out of the debate is that Sweden has welcomed many thousands of Muslims over the past decades, including the very Iraqi who burned a Koran this summer.
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Sweden is one of the world’s most secular countries and one of the most liberal and tolerant. The question is, can respect and freedom of expression work together? Yes – but only if we personally and collectively take responsibility for respecting each other and make room for differences as good neighbors. The current situation undermines a global leader in liberty and tolerance, with Sweden under pressure from individuals who want to reduce freedom in various forms and see how far that tolerance can be pushed. It is high time to tell the truth and proudly defend Sweden’s liberal values.
Under one scenario, Sweden stands up and defends freedom of expression, assembly and demonstration. It hopes that the situation eventually fades, as it did with the controversy over Muhammad caricatures in Denmark – making it less interesting for anti-immigrant actors to irritate the Swedish public and provoke anger and a sense of violation among Muslims worldwide.
Alternatively, the situation may worsen, and diplomatic relations with Muslim countries may deteriorate. More and more Swedish companies in these countries would be affected by restrictions, even when Swedish technology and know-how are needed there. In the worst case, there could be violent terrorist attacks targeting Sweden.
A third path is that Sweden weakens its principles as a liberal and legally secure country, narrowing its freedom of expression to protect geopolitical interests. By changing its fundamental values, Sweden would become a less tolerant and free country.