Why does burning the Quran matter?
CAN BURGAZ- The Swiss-Danish far-right politician Rasmus Paludan’s Quran-burning protest caused heated responses in Turkey. This development, which took place just as negotiations were ongoing with Turkey for Sweden’s NATO membership, caused talks to be suspended. According to many analysts, this protest clearly aimed to sabotage Sweden’s NATO membership.
Who is Paludan?
41-year-old attorney Rasmus Paludan is a dual citizen of Denmark and Sweden. The leader of the far-right Stram Kurs (Hard Line) Party which he founded in 2017, Paludan is known for his anti-immigrant and Islamophobic stance. Paludan, who was unable to pass the 2% threshold with 1.8 percentage of votes in the elections held in Denmark in 2019, makes the news with his protests.
Paludan, who announced that he would be lighting the Quran on fire in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm on January 21, was not stopped despite protests from Turkey. A group of counter protestors were also present in front of the Embassy where the police had enforced strict security measures. On Friday, January 27, Paludan carried out another Quran burning protest in front of the mosque belonging to the Islamic Society after the Friday prayer in the Dortheavej district of Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark.
Turkey’s reactions delayed negotiations
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed outrage regarding the incident and blamed the Swedish authorities. Erdogan said, “It is clear that those who caused such a disgrace in front of our country's embassy can no longer expect any benevolence from us regarding their application for NATO membership.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry released a statement saying, "We condemn in the strongest possible terms the vile attack against our holy book, the Holy Quran, in Sweden today (January 21) which took place despite all the warnings from our country. We in no way accept that this anti-Islamic provocative action that targets Muslims and insults our sacred values be allowed under the name of freedom of expression. Because this is a hate crime," The phrase “our holy book” in the statement was criticized by secular circles in Turkey.
A group in front of the Swedish Consulate in Beyoglu’s Istiklal Avenue protested Paludan’s Quran burning in Stockholm by chanting takbeer.* Meanwhile, a member of the group broke through the police barrier and broke the board at the entrance of the consulate. Police intervened and removed this person from the premises.
Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar, on the other hand, reminded people that the act of burning the Quran in Sweden had been allowed and said, "At this point, the visit of Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson to Turkey on January 27 no longer has any significance, which is why we canceled the visit.”
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said in a statement on social media, “Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of democracy. But what is legal is not necessarily appropriate. Burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act. I want to express my sympathy for all Muslims who are offended by what has happened in Stockholm today.”
Prime Minister Kristersson, in a later statement emphasizing that external actors manipulated and benefited from this situation, said, “The groups and individuals who carried out this kind of action, in this security situation, they become useful idiots for forces that wish harm upon Sweden.”
Is there a Russia connection?
This protest, which took place at a time when Sweden and Turkey were negotiating Sweden's NATO membership, led many to suspect Russia. Speaking to the Swedish press, Chang Frick, a former Russia Today employee, said that he paid the 320 kroner (30 US dollars) demonstration fee.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto also hinted that Russia, which wants to prevent Sweden from joining NATO, may be behind the Quran burning. In an interview with YLE TV1, the Minister stated that far-right activist Rasmus Paludan’s potential links with Russia are "under investigation and that there is substantial evidence of connection.”
"Sweden has addressed many of Turkey's concerns and will continue to implement this trilateral memorandum ... but it is clear right now that that's not enough," said Paul Levin, Director of the Institute for Turkish Studies at Stockholm University. Levin also pointed to other actors related to the issue and said, "Turkey's actions now benefit Putin and ... that should be problematic for the alliance as a whole.”
George Dyson, a senior analyst at Control Risks, says Sweden has limited options on this issue and Turkey is pushing to get as much as possible from its allies. Dyson says, "It's more to do with U.S.-Turkey relations, Turkey feels that the U.S. is a good friend when they need Turkey but not when Turkey needs them ... Or at least this is the rhetoric."
* A Muslim proclamation meaning “God is great” in English and “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic.