Rasmus Paludan, a lawyer, founder of the Danish far-right party Stram Kurs (Hard Line) established in 2017.Much of the party’s agenda focuses on building an anti-Islam narrative and engaging in provocative acts t towards Islam and Muslims. The party uses social media platforms and public gatherings to further their agenda. The Stram Kurs also seeks a ban on Islam by demanding the deportation of all Muslims and the preservation of the country for its “ethnic community.((https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/05/danish-far-right-party-stram-kurs-calling-for-muslim-deportation-to-stand-in-election))
Paludan who holds both Danish and Swedish citizenship burned copies of the Muslim holy book on 21st January 2023 outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm and near a Mosque in Copenhagen outside the Turkish embassy on 27th January. He said he will continue the burning until Sweden is admitted into NATO. The accession requires approval from all NATO members including Turkey.
In front of the Turkish embassy, the Danish-Swedish activist said: “Once he [Erdogan] has let Sweden into NATO, I promise that I will not burn the Quran outside the Turkish embassy. Otherwise, I will do so every Friday at 2pm.” Paludan, who has police protection, was then driven away in a police car.
In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sweden decided to apply for full NATO membership but has been locked in an acrimonious confrontation with Turkey. Sweden and neighbouring Finland are seeking to join the military alliance amid the war in Ukraine, in a historic departure from their non-aligned policies. However, their accession would require approval from all NATO members. Turkey has indicated it will block Sweden’s bid – in part due to Paludan’s initial stunt. Even before that, Ankara was pressing the two countries to crack down on Kurdish armed groups, activists and others it considers “terrorists”. Sweden’s Supreme Court on 19 December 2022 blocked the extradition of an exiled Turkish journalist, a key demand by Ankara to ratify Stockholm’s NATO membership.The exiled journalist is the only person Erdogan has identified by name among dozens of others he wants extradited in exchange for approving Sweden’s membership bid.
On Monday 24th January 2023 a similar stunt was performed by the leader of the Dutch branch of the German extreme right movement Pegida ( Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes), Edwin Wagensveld, who tore up the pages and burn another copy of Quran in the city of Den Haag, under the protection of Dutch police. He claimed that he was given permission by the local authorities,[i]
What reactions did it provoke?
After Paludan’s action in Sweden on 21 January 2023, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Stockholm not to expect support for its NATO bid. Turkey indefinitely postponed a key meeting in Brussels that would have discussed Sweden and Finland’s membership. [ii]
Turkish Government strongly condemned the Danish and Swedish Governments for granting permission to such an act, and Danish Ambassador was summoned to the Turkish foreign ministry. Turkish’s foreign minister issued a statement calling Paludan an “Islam-hating charlatan’ and deploring the fact that he was allowed to stage such a demonstration.[iii]
“Showing tolerance towards such heinous acts that offend the sensitivities of millions of people living in Europe threatens the practice of peaceful coexistence and provokes racist, xenophobic, and anti-Muslim attacks,” the ministry said.[iv]
The protests spread out among Muslims in Europe and in Muslim countries. A group of Muslims on 28th January 2023 gathered outside Sweden’s Embassy in London. The protesters held signs condemning the Islamophobic extremist act and chanted slogans. Dozens of people from different communities in Birmingham, Manchester, and London also performed prayer and recited verses from the Quran on the streets.[v]
Arab countries – including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq– have also denounced the stunt as well as other Muslim-majority countries such as Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan Bangladesh, and Somalia. Global Muslim organisations such as OIC and Muslim World League also condemned this act and asked the respective governments to take effective actions to prevent the recurrence of these vile acts.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH VERSUS ISLAMOPHOBIA?
The reason that incensed Muslims around the globe was not just the act of Quran burning but the protection by law granted to Rasmus Pauldan.
On 21st January 2023, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson justified the authorisation given to the protests as freedom of speech. In a post on Twitter, he said that the debate around “freedom of expression was a fundamental part of democracy and what is legal is not necessarily appropriate.” [vi] He also expressed his sympathy to all Muslims who were offended by what happened in Stockholm.
The statement by the Swedish Prime Minister raised debate on the limits of freedom of speech and Islamophobia where freedom of expression arguments is used to justify anti-Muslim racism. Ulf in his expression of sympathy to the Muslim world neglected the history of Quran burning as a recurring episode of Islamophobia and placed emphasis only on defending the individual’s right to freedom of expression. Muslim activists and academicians around the globe criticised the use of freedom of speech to defend Pauldan and called it an act of hate speech rather than free speech.[vii]
In a rare move on 1st February 2023, Swedish police the police have denied permission for two demonstrations that were to end with the burning of the Quran. The first one would have been outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm to protest against Turkey’s refusal to permit Sweden’s entrance to NATO, while in the other one man wanted to burn the Quran outside the Iraqi embassy. The Swedish security service, Säpo, warned that burnings of the Quran have increased threats against both the Swedish society at large and also against Sweden, Swedish citizens and interests abroad.[viii] Such a statement highlights that when the security of the Swedish government and citizens is at stake, freedom of speech can in fact be limited.