Sweden and Turkey relations sour after far-right politician burns the Koran

Diplomatic relations between Turkey and Sweden have chilled after Danish far-right, anti-immigrant politician, Rasmus Paludan, burned a Koran outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm on January 21. Condemnation from Turkey was swift, but so was a statement from the Swedish Prime Minister's office, describing the act, as “disrespectful.” But the rift remains.

Turkey withdrew from an upcoming meeting in Brussels between Sweden, Finland, and Turkey in February, which was meant to hash out the diplomatic standoff over Finland and Sweden's bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland announced their decision to join NATO. However, the decision must be approved unilaterally by all 30 member states. Turkey, a NATO member, said last year that unless both countries met its demands, it won't approve the bid, “citing their history of hosting members of Kurdish militant groups and Sweden’s suspension of arms sales to Turkey since 2019 over Ankara’s military operation in Syria,” according to the Guardian. In addition to Turkey, Hungary too vetoed the decision for the two countries to join the alliance. Meanwhile, Finland made hints it would join the alliance without Sweden if the rift continues.

Turkey also said it canceled the upcoming January 27 visit by Sweden's defense chief on the grounds the meeting was no longer important. Speaking at a press conference, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in the absence of respect towards Muslims and Turkey, “[Sweden] won’t see any support from us on the NATO issue.” Echoing the words of the president, a statement issued by Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described the act as “vile” and “unacceptable.” “This despicable act is yet another example of the alarming level that Islamophobia and, racist and discriminatory movements have reached in Europe,” read the statement.

Following the Koran burning in Stockholm, a series of protests were held outside the Swedish Consulate General in Istanbul, where participants burned the Swedish flag and chanted slogans against Sweden. A sign hanging on the window of the consulate that read, “We do not share the book-burning idiot's view” did little to calm the tensions. On January 25, one man was detained outside the consulate building in Istanbul after pointing a gun at the building. Meanwhile, Diyanet, Turkey's top religious body, said it will be seeking legal action for the burning of the holy book. “We will raise our voice not only against the heinous Koran burning in Sweden, but also against Islamophobic attacks in European countries,” said Ali Erbaş, the body's director.

Scores of other Muslim nations have condemned the torching of the holy book. Some have called to boycott Swedish goods, while others to closures of Swedish diplomatic missions.

US State Department Spokesman Ned Price offered a different take on the unfolding events. At a press conference, Price said, “the fact of the matter is, this was a private individual, a provocateur, someone who may have deliberately sought to put distance between two close partners of ours — Turkey and Sweden. He may have deliberately sought to have an impact on the ongoing discussions regarding the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO.”

The caricature of the day.

Shortly after the incident, allegations that Swedish journalist Chang Frick was the person behind Paludan's act surfaced in the media. Frick said in a tweet, he tried to convince Paludan not to burn the book. In an interview with investigative journalism platform Insider.ru, Frick, who is also the former stringer for Russia Today's subsidiary Ruptly, said although he did pay for the permit to hold the protest, “he did not ask anyone to burn the religious text.” In another interview with a Swedish media SVT, Frick said the act was about freedom of expression, “This is about freedom of expression. Should we curtail our freedom of demonstration and speech because of a foreign power? If we don't have free opinion formation, you can shut down free media.”

This was not the first time Paludan, who also has Swedish citizenship, has burned Koran at a demonstration. He was also convicted of racism in 2021, although he never served time in prison.

Paludan's burning of the Koran followed another incident that took place on January 12 in which the protesters hung an effigy of the Turkish president from a lamppost outside Stockholm City Hall. Following the incident, Turkey expressed its disapproval of the Swedish government's decision not to further investigate the perpetrators. That the protests were organized by a group associated with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which is recognized as a terrorist organization in Turkey, and by its western allies, including the US and the EU, made the incident even more personal for Turkey's leadership.

But the real reason behind Turkey's decision to block Sweden's bid to join NATO is not rooted in either the protest or Koran burning. According to journalist and researcher Guney Yildiz, “the decision to delay or block Swedish and Finnish membership does not stem from the anti-Turkiye or anti-Erdoğan protests in Stockholm or the burning of a copy of the Quran by a far-right politician. Ankara's prevention of [Finland and Sweden's] access is a tactical move aimed at balancing its relationship with Russia and using it as leverage against the West to extract concessions.” Otherwise, Turkey would have withdrawn from NATO as a matter of principle, given the prevalent anti-Erdoğan and anti-Turkey sentiments in other countries, including the US, Germany, and France, wrote Yildiz.

In a recent discussion on Medyascope, Ömer Taşpınar, a nonresident senior fellow in the Brookings Institute's Center on the United States and Europe, said that Turkey is more interested in a seat at a table with the Biden administration and knowing whether the relations between the two countries are going to improve. Sweden and Finland's memberships are being used as bargaining chips in the hands of Turkey, which it has now put off until after the election. “In his mind, [President] Erdoğan thinks Turkey's strategic importance has increased [following Russia's invasion of Ukraine] and that the West needs Turkey at this stage,” explained Taşpınar. Speaking on the same show, the director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program and a senior fellow for the Frontier Europe Initiative, Gönül Tol, said, Turkey as a “middle power” country, is “using tensions between bigger powers to open a path for its own maneuvers. So by playing Russia and NATO against each other, Erdoğan opened a room for maneuver in the international arena.”

Others view recent diplomatic tensions as “an attempt to divert voters’ attention from a cost-of-living crisis and to project an image as an international statesman,” ahead of the May 14 general election, as described by Reuters. Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat, agrees. In his piece for Project Syndicate, Ulgen wrote, “By going public with his opposition to the Finnish and Swedish bids, rather than opting for quiet diplomacy, Erdoğan hopes that the issue will help to consolidate his public support” ahead of elections.

Among those who think Erdoğan is playing for an audience at home ahead of the general vote is the Lithuanian Member of Parliament Laurynas Kasčiūnas, chairman of the parliamentary Committee on National Security and Defence. Kasčiūnas expects both Sweden and Finland to join NATO ahead of the upcoming alliance summit in Vilnius in July but after the national election in Turkey. Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto also expects a decision after the local election. For now, the negotiations have been put on hold, and only time will tell whether Turkey's anti-NATO expansion stance was really triggered by anti-Islamic sentiments, or simply pre-election stress and strategic maneuvering.

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