A Danish-Swedish far-right extremist known for spreading anti-Muslim hatred burned a copy of the Holy Quran in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm on January 21 under the protection of Swedish police.
The incident has not only drawn condemnation from Muslims worldwide, but many non-Muslim leaders also expressed their disapproval of it. But the devil is in the details. A large segment of Europeans, including many strong voices inside Sweden, have defended this vile act under the pretext of upholding freedoms of speech and expression.
Swedish state authorities wilfully became bystanders, enabling a far-right politician to burn the sacred Quran outside the Turkish embassy. Although the Swedish government has come up with some face-saving statements, denouncing the desecration of Islam's holy book and describing it as an attempt to sabotage the country's NATO bid, its decision to allow this nauseating spectacle sent a clear message to Muslims worldwide — that the Nordic state has no respect for the followers of Islam.
Far from being “isolated” and “exceptional,” the latest incident is yet another addition to a disturbing pattern witnessed in Sweden over the past several decades. One must remember that Sweden has become a safe haven for the PKK, classified by the EU, the US and Türkiye as a terrorist group. The Swedish state willingly turns a blind eye to the language of dehumanisation employed by the PKK’s supporters on the streets of Stockholm to discredit Türkiye and its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Any nation-state that disregards rules-based international order and undermines the national security of another nation is doomed to be hit by a disaster of its own making. Sweden is slowly but surely heading in that direction. By allowing itself to become one of the PKK’s launchpads, it has opened a Pandora’s box; other extremist groups will exploit the country’s unregulated social space, while the Swedish far right has already devoured it, carrying out depraved acts under the guise of free speech. Compounding the far right with the PKK’s support base has yielded a dangerous hybrid akin to Frankenstein's monster.
As the Russia-Ukraine war forced Sweden to come to terms with years of misguided policies that strengthened the presence of both the PKK and the far right on Swedish soil, Stockholm pledged to Ankara last fall that it would address Türkiye's security concerns and win Ankara's approval of its NATO bid.
A trilateral memorandum between Sweden, Finland and Türkiye signed at the NATO summit in Madrid last year rattled the PKK. But since Sweden finds itself in a state of disavowal, radicalism has gone unchecked, emboldening both PKK supporters and far-right extremists to pursue divisive agendas.
Despite the PKK and the Swedish far-right having grown in size and influence, Stockholm continues to pursue a policy that has led to its self-entrapment, exposing the country to far greater challenges arising from new geopolitical realities. Russia's incursion into Ukraine has jolted Sweden out of years of dormancy, exposing its defence and military vulnerabilities and pushing it to seek NATO's protection. In light of Türkiye's immense contributions to the North Atlantic military alliance, Sweden had no choice but to mend ties with Ankara. So last fall, when Stockholm pledged to rein in PKK supporters, it seemed the ground for extremism would soon shrink in the country.
But rampant anti-Türkiye protests marked with derogatory sloganeering and the subsequent Quran-burning act have undermined Sweden's NATO posturing. While Sweden is fast losing respect in the eyes of Muslims, its pledge to Türkiye has fallen apart at the seams.
There was clear thinking behind the burning of Islam’s holy book in front of the Turkish embassy: It was carried out by Rasmus Paludan, a rabid Muslim-hater and far-right politician, at a time when Ankara demanded that Stockholm take decisive actions against the PKK and its offshoots and its support base in exchange for Türkiye’s approval of Sweden’s NATO bid.
One may call the simultaneity of Paludan's malicious act and anti-Türkiye protests led by PKK supporters a coincidence. But upon closer inspection, the two sides are playing to the tune of Sweden's hostility towards Muslims and Türkiye, which in turn is imperiling its entry to NATO.
Sweden needs to be prudent and address the growing extremism in the country. The two major disruptive forces they need to confront are the PKK and its supporters and the country’s far-right groups.
All right-thinking Europeans must recognise the dangers of normalising acts of hatred in the name of safeguarding free speech and seek accountability from their governments. Otherwise, they will risk losing well-meaning friends.
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