Just as the Sweden’s political parties have united to shift long-standing policy toward collective security, Islamophobic protests have threatened its hopes. The long road to NATO may still have many miles to go.
On Saturday 21 January 2023, the Danish-born far-right politician Rasmus Paludan burned a copy of the Quran, the holy scripture of Islam, in front the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. The burning followed an hour-long tirade against both Islam and immigration. A separate protest with pro-Kurdish protestors and left-wing anti-NATO groups also took place, with participants openly expressing their support for the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, considered a terrorist group in Turkey, the European Union, and the United States. A pro-Turkish demonstration was also held outside the embassy. All protests had legal permits.
Paludan is a leader of the Danish far-right party Hard Line (Stram Kurs), which he founded in 2017. The party has an anti-immigration and anti-Islam platform. It was on the ballot in the 2019 Danish general election, gaining 1.8 percent of the votes – not enough to make the two percent election threshold.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry immediately condemned the Quran burning and cancelled the Swedish defence minister Pål Jonson’s scheduled visit despite the Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström tweeting that, while Sweden had strong free speech protections, the Swedish government was opposed to the opinions expressed by the protesters, and that he personally found such Islamophobic provocations “appalling.” In a televised address on Monday 23 January 2023, the president of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized the Swedish government for allowing the protests and vowed that Turkey would not support Sweden’s NATO bid.
In the background of Turkey’s reaction are also previous provocations. In spring of 2022, Paludan participated in 30 demonstrations and burned and desecrated the Quran at least 19 times in front of mosques. The burnings and planned burnings sparked unprecedentedly violent riots in April 2022 in several cities, with gunshots fired and three police officers injured. The riots were unusual in that they also involved criminal elements, connecting the riots to the dramatic rise in gang warfare, shootings, and crime which has plagued Sweden in recent years.
An earlier provocation against Turkey occurred on Wednesday 12 January when an effigy of President Erdoğan was hanged in front of the Stockholm City Hall. The Turkish government responded by summoning the Swedish ambassador and cancelling the Swedish parliamentary Speaker’s trip to Ankara.
On Wednesday 4 February 2023, the Swedish police refused to grant permission to a similar rally that would have included a burning of a Quran, stating that such a rally would have serious consequences for Sweden’s internal security.
Sweden’s NATO bid and Turkey’s opposition
Joining NATO has been one of the main issues on the agenda of the new Kristersson Cabinet, which took office after the general election in September 2022. The Cabinet is led by Ulf Kristersson from the liberal-conservative Moderate Party and is comprised of a coalition of three centre-right parties: the Moderate Party, the Christian Democrats, and the Liberals. The 2022 election was characterised by the dramatic rise of right-populist, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, which replaced the Moderate Party (19.10 percent of the vote) as the second largest party (20.54 percent of the vote). The Sweden Democrats were left out of the government coalition, however.
Swedish opinion polls (SOM opinion poll) for the past ten years show a steady increase in the percentage of citizens supporting Sweden’s NATO membership. However, these percentages have always been well below 50 percent, that is until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In particular, Sweden’s ruling party, the Social Democrats, has historically been lukewarm towards NATO.
The events in Ukraine and the worsening security situation in Europe finally tipped the balance in favour of those who support the membership in Spring 2022. On 16 March 2022, the government set up a working group to deliberate on the changed security environment. Around the same time, the Social Democrats began deliberations on whether the party should change its long-standing stance against NATO membership.
The government’s work group released its findings on 13 May 2022, and on the 15th the Social Democrats decided to join the centre-right parties in favour of NATO membership, with the Left and Green parties in opposition. Sweden’s NATO bid was formally submitted on 18 May 2022, together with Finland. The U-turn in the Social Democrat’s NATO stance and the NATO bid both represent a historic change in Sweden’s security policy. While Sweden has developed significant ties with NATO and its Nordic neighbours in security matters over the years, it has maintained official neutrality since the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s.
As of the end of January, legislatures in 28 NATO countries have approved the enlargement, with Hungary’s and Turkey’s approval still missing. To be admitted to NATO, all current 30 member nations must give their approval.
Finland has not received as much opposition from Turkey and as recently as 29 January, Erdoğan suggested that his government might approve Finland’s bid but not Sweden’s. In the background of the eight-month long back-and-forth between Sweden and Turkey are old-standing tensions related to the significant (100 000 to 150 000) Kurdish diaspora in Sweden. Earlier, Turkey also demanded that both Sweden (and to a less extent Finland, which does not have a significant Kurdish diaspora) hand over 70 individuals it considers linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and other pro-Kurdish-independence organisations, such as the Democratic Union Party (PYG) in Northern Syria. Sweden is also home to followers of exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who were blamed for a failed coup against Erdoğan in 2016.
Political commentators disagree, however, to what extent Erdoğan’s reluctance is really about getting PKK members extradited or whether he is playing to popular politics for electoral purposes. In previous elections, his political image has relied on being “tough on terror.” Some have pointed out that Turkey has a long-standing pattern of delaying NATO alliance decisions to obtain concessions, while others argue that tensions between Turkey and the U.S. over fighter jet purchases are to blame.
The Russian connection?
In the aftermath of the latest Quran burning, several commentators, including the Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, suggested that Russia might be using Rasmus Paludan to disrupt Sweden’s accession to the NATO. As Russia has long been known to finance anti-immigrant and anti-establishment right-wing parties and foment internal tensions between native-born and Muslim immigrants in the West, this is not an unwarranted concern. In an interview by the Swedish newspaper Dagen’s Nyheter, Paludan says burning the Quran was not his idea, but that it had came from the far-right Swedish journalist Chang Frick, who runs the right-populist Riks Youtube channel and was previously affiliated with the Russian propagandist TV channel RT.
Present and future developments
As of mid-February, Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership is still an open question, though most Swedish and Finnish politicians are confident that the negotiations with Turkey will eventually bear fruit. The effects of the devastating earthquake on Turkey’s internal politics and its opposition to Sweden’s accession to NATO are still unclear. The Swedish government is actively continuing its campaign against both Islamophobia and organised gang crime, which has taken advantage of violence sparked by sectarian and political conflicts, as well as right-wing extremism. Combating these issues will be vital to Swedish security interests in the medium to long run.
Kira Pronin is Postdoctoral Researcher, Syracuse University, Whitman School of Management. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from University of Pittsburgh. Email: email@example.com, website: www.scandipolitics.com, Twitter: @ProninKira
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