The clash of fundamentals complicates Sweden’s aspirations to join NATO, whose expansion has been made more urgent after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but requires the approval of all existing members. Turkey has blocked Sweden from joining since last year, citing anti-Turkish and anti-Islam protests in Stockholm.
Then, last week, an Iraqi Christian immigrant Islamic holy book burned outside Stockholm mosque During the important Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, the man said he expressed his feelings about the Koran in an act.
The burning incident triggered widespread condemnation in the Islamic world. Along with similar recent protests by far-right activists, it has sparked a debate in Sweden over restrictions on free speech. Now, Swedish police say they have received new requests for demonstrations from people who want to burn the Koran, Torah and Bibles.
Muslim countries have urged Sweden to enact a ban, and Pakistani Prime Minister Shebaz Sharif called for a day of protests on Friday to defend the sanctity of Islam’s holy book, as Pakistan’s parliament discusses the burning of the Koran.
Even some liberal commentators in Sweden argued that the protests should be considered hate speech, which is illegal in the country when it targets an ethnic or racial origin. But many in Sweden say criticism of religion must be allowed, even in ways deemed offensive by believers, and that Sweden should resist pressure to reintroduce blasphemy laws in a predominantly Lutheran but highly secular nation. The Scandinavian country was abandoned decades ago.
“This is a very serious situation for Sweden,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and strategic adviser at the Swedish National Defense University’s Center for Social Security.
Stockholm police said on Wednesday they had received two new applications for book burning protests in the capital: one from an individual who wanted to burn the Koran outside a mosque and another from the Torah outside the Israeli embassy and the people of the Bible.
A third request involving the “burning of religious texts” had been filed in the southern city of Helsingborg, local police chief Mattias Sigfridsson told The Associated Press.
Police have yet to make a decision on those requests.
“In Sweden we have freedom of speech. We also respect people who have a different opinion and the fact that it might hurt some feelings. We have to look at the law. That’s what we do,” Siegfriedsen said.
An attempt by Stockholm police to stop protests over the burning of Korans earlier this year was rejected by a court, which said such acts were protected under Swedish law.
Police cited the decision to allow protests to take place last week after Swedish media said the man, a Christian from Iraq, had burned a Koran outside a mosque in Stockholm on Eid al-Adha. Sweden’s Muslim leaders lamented the incident, but the reaction was strongest in the Middle East. The Swedish embassy in Baghdad was briefly stormed by angry protesters. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the act and criticized Swedish authorities for allowing it. Iran has refused to send a new ambassador to Stockholm, and Pakistan has asked the UN Human Rights Council to schedule a special session on the issue. Outside the Muslim world, Pope Francis also expressed regret over the incident.
Meanwhile, the Swedish government issued a statement saying it “strongly rejects Islamophobia committed by individuals in Sweden”, adding that it “in no way reflects the views of the Swedish government”.
This drew criticism from several commentators in Sweden, who said the government needed to stand up for free speech and not pass judgment on individual protests.
“I think it is exceptional and extremely inappropriate for the government … to criticize an individual demonstration by a person who is, by all accounts, within the bounds of the law and who has only taken advantage of the freedom of speech enshrined in the Constitution, a well-known Swedish free speech advocate author Nils Funke told public broadcaster SVT.
Sweden fears that the situation is beginning to resemble the wrath of Muslim nations that Denmark faced in 2006 after cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad were published in newspapers. The Danish consulate and embassy were burned down and cartoonists faced death threats from radical Islamists. Attempts by Danish officials to explain how such cartoons are protected by free speech have been widely dismissed in the Muslim world.
Ranstorp said the timing of the latest Koran-burning protests was suspicious, as Swedish and Turkish officials prepare to hold talks this week on Sweden’s accession to NATO.
“We have foreign powers, like Russia, who spread information about this in Arabic. We have Turkey, which is using it to exert influence in the NATO debate,” Ranstorp said.
The Iraqi man behind the protests told Swedish media that the protests were aimed at Islam, not Sweden’s NATO application.
Swedish security services warn of Russian meddling in Swedish society.
“In general, the Swedish Security Service understands how authoritarian states such as Russia use proxies to destabilize or influence Swedish public opinion and decision-making,” agency spokesman Adam Samara said.
Previously non-aligned Sweden and neighboring Finland have applied to join NATO following Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine last year. Russia responded by warning of “serious military-political consequences” that would require “retaliatory measures by the Russian Federation”.
Finland joined NATO in April. Turkey and Hungary are the only NATO countries that have not ratified Sweden’s membership.