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EXPLAINED: How did a far-right extremist derail Sweden's Nato application?

The Local Sweden
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EXPLAINED: How did a far-right extremist derail Sweden's Nato application?
Far-right provocateur Rasmus Paludan at his rally outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Turkey has pulled out of upcoming Nato accession talks with Sweden and Finland following a far-right activist's Koran-burning stunt. How did it come to this?


What has happened?

In May last year, following concerns over an increasingly aggressive Russia which had just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Sweden broke with its decades-old policy of military non-alignment to apply for Nato membership together with its Finnish neighbours.

Nato membership needs to be ratified by all existing members of the military alliance but Hungary and Turkey have not yet done so, with the latter in particular dragging its feet – complaining that not all of the concessions it has demanded from Sweden have been met, including handing over Kurdish activists to Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also taken umbrage at protests in Sweden against his leadership.


The latest row started two weeks ago when a pro-Kurdish group hanged an effigy of Erdogan in Stockholm, and was dialled up several notches when far-right extremist Rasmus Paludan (no links to the pro-Kurdish group) then decided to burn a copy of the Koran outside Ankara’s embassy in Sweden.

The latter sparked a series of rallies in Turkey and other Muslim countries, which saw protesters burn Swedish flags.

It also led to where we are now: Turkey has indefinitely postponed the upcoming Nato talks with Sweden and Finland.

Who is Rasmus Paludan?

Paludan is a far-right activist whose shtick is to travel to various towns and burn the Koran, often outside a mosque or, as in the latest case, outside the Turkish embassy.

He is Danish, and Swedish police in 2020 tried to flat out ban him from coming to Sweden to burn Islam's holy book by stopping him at the border. However, when it emerged that he had a Swedish father and was therefore a Swedish citizen, they were no longer able to prevent him from entering the country.

Paludan stood in the Swedish election in 2022 with a campaign tour that saw him – you guessed it – travel up and down the country to burn the Koran. He got 156 votes – nowhere near the four percent required to get a seat in the Swedish parliament. He has also failed in his efforts to be elected to the Danish parliament.


Why did Sweden not stop his burning of a Koran?

That’s a question asked by Turkish authorities – who urged Sweden to reject his permit for a demonstration – as well as many protesters in the Muslim world.

Permission to demonstrate is not awarded by the government in Sweden; instead, anyone who wishes to stage a demonstration has to apply to the police.

The right to demonstrate is safeguarded by the Swedish constitution and police may only really reject an application if the planned activity is illegal or if rejecting it is the only way to protect public safety. In practice the threshold for rejection is quite high, so strong is the right to demonstrate. Similarly, if someone wanted to burn the Bible or a Swedish flag at a demonstration, police would likely approve their permit as long as public safety was not at risk.

Paludan had a permit, as did the pro-Turkish organisation Union of European Turkish Democrats, which also demonstrated outside the embassy at the same time. Swedish newspaper DN writes that because the latter applied first, Paludan’s demonstration was moved slightly to a location some 50 metres from the embassy.


Although it’s not related to this particular incident, it’s interesting to note that Swedish police don’t automatically have the right to break up even a demonstration that lacks a permit, unless a previous application has been denied or it's considered a risk to public safety. It’s legal to take part in such a demonstration, so unless you’re the organiser you’re not breaking any laws just by taking part in it. The organiser, however, can get fined or jailed for six months.

There is an ongoing debate in Sweden over whether burning religious books should be considered a hate crime, with those in favour arguing that it should not only be seen as someone simply setting a book on fire but as part of a wider context of propaganda directed at a religious group. 


“It’s important that authorities don’t view Paludan’s Koran burnings and demonstrations as isolated events. They have been carried out with racist intent, in connection with Ramadan, near mosques and in areas where many Muslims live,” said an expert for Swedish organisation Civil Rights Defenders when they took a series of separate, non Turkey-related, Paludan-led Koran burnings to court last summer, arguing that they constituted hate speech.

But because Koran burnings are not explicitly banned and have never been tried in a Swedish court, there is no precedent to state that such demonstrations could be illegal.

What’s the reaction in Sweden to all of this?

The reactions have been quite varied, so it’s hard to say. Paludan is not a massively popular figure and his rallies are more likely to attract counter-demonstrators, police posted to the rally to maintain order, and members of the media than supporters.

Koran burnings in the early days of his Sweden tour, in 2020, sparked riots and global media coverage, but Swedes have been less and less likely to bat an eyelid at his provocations, with rallies often struggling to attract even curious spectators.

Until now, that is, when his burning of the Koran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm sparked fury in Turkey and threatened to derail Sweden’s Nato bid.

The act was condemned by most Swedish politicians.

“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,” tweeted Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson.

His sympathetic response, however, caused a rift between Kristersson and his close allies, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, whose leader Jimmie Åkesson slammed Erdogan as an “Islamist dictator” and rejected making further concessions to Turkey.

As for Swedish reactions to protests in Turkey, the burning of the Swedish flag has been met with not much more than a yawn, but there has been increasing concern over how they impact the country's Nato application and opinion is divided on the government’s unsuccessful attempts to appease Turkey.

Who was actually behind Paludan’s Koran burning?

The involvement of other actors than Paludan has raised questions about who would benefit from throwing a spanner in the works of Sweden’s Nato membership.

Kjell Engelbrekt, a political scientist at the Swedish Defence University, told DN that the Turkish regime had been quick to jump on the opportunity to exploit the Koran burning. “The whole chain resembles a high-scale information operation,” he said.

Paludan himself claimed that the idea to burn the Koran outside the Turkish embassy came from "one of" two people who contacted him to ask him to come to Sweden: a reporter at far-right site Exakt24 and the well-known provocateur Chang Frick. Frick countered that he had suggested burning the Turkish flag and had tried to discourage Paludan from burning the Koran, but conceded that he had paid the administration fee for his demonstration permit application.

Frick runs the right-wing populist site Nyheter Idag. He is also a presenter on the Sweden Democrats’ YouTube channel Riks and has previously produced freelance material for Russian propaganda site Russia Today. He told the Aftonbladet newspaper that he had "no interest" in derailing Sweden's Nato bid.

The Exakt24 reporter told DN that he had been involved in the early discussions about the Koran burning, although he denied it was his idea. The editor of Exakt24 is a former Sweden Democrat MP who has praised Russian democracy and described the Ukrainian 2014 Euromaidan protests as a coup d’état.

“That people with such values and friendly ties to the Kremlin want to prevent Sweden from entering Nato is not surprising. It’s stranger how easily the conservatives have dismissed the obvious security risks that collaborating with SD entails in this situation,” wrote liberal writer Isobel Hadley-Kamptz for DN.

The deputy leader of the Sweden Democrats denied his party's involvement when asked by Swedish media. He pointed out that Frick had also appeared on a game show made by Swedish public broadcaster SVT last year and could therefore not say “whether he is more connected to SD than he is to SVT”.


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