Turkey’s designs on Sweden

Karam Said, Thursday 6 Jul 2023

Turkey may be using the recent burning of a copy of the Holy Quran in Sweden to put pressure on the Swedish government and its hopes of joining NATO.

Turkey s designs on Sweden
Supporters of Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr raise the Quran in response to the burning of a copy of the holy book in Sweden, in Basra (photo: AP)


Tensions have spiked again between Turkey and Sweden after a Swedish national of Iraqi origin burned a copy of the Holy Quran in front of a mosque in Sweden on 28 June during the Eid Al-Adha holiday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vehemently condemned the incident.

In a speech during a holiday programme organised by the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) on 29 June, Erdogan said that “the enemies of Islam and humanity are trying to cast a shadow over the Eid Al-Adha through provocative acts committed under police protection.”

“The vile attack in Sweden against the Holy Quran on the first day of the Eid is one of them. The perpetrators of this crime, as well as those who permit it on the pretext of ‘freedom of thought,’ will not achieve their goals.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan also condemned the “despicable act” and stressed that “to condone such acts is to be complicit” in them. A statement released by the Turkish Foreign Ministry said that those involved would be held to account.

The man responsible, Selwan Momika, had applied for and received permission from the Swedish authorities to stage a burning of the Quran as an act of “protest” in front of the largest mosque in Stockholm.   

This was not the first incident of its kind in Sweden. On 21 January, the Danish-Swedish far-right politician Rasmus Paludan set fire to a copy of the Holy Quran in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm, after having received a permit for this from the Swedish authorities.   

About ten days before that, the Swedish authorities had granted permission to a group of Kurdish activists to stage a protest against Turkish policies, during which they hung an effigy of the Turkish president.

The Turkish government has long accused Sweden of harbouring members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey has designated as a terrorist organisation. Ankara insists that Stockholm must extradite a number of individuals it claims are linked with the PKK as a condition for its approval of Sweden’s application to join NATO.

In January, the Swedish prime minister said that Turkey had pressed demands that Sweden could not accept.

Nevertheless, Sweden has introduced a number of legislative amendments in order to meet Turkey’s conditions for backing its application to join NATO. Most recently, Swedish legislators tightened the country’s antiterrorist laws to make it easier to comply with Turkey’s extradition requests.

On 12 June, the Swedish government approved the extradition of a Turkish citizen who has been residing in Sweden for several years and whom the Turkish authorities allege is a supporter of the outlawed PKK.

As a result, the prospect of Turkey’s approving the Swedish application had seemed to be looking up, especially after Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson congratulated Erdogan on his re-election to another term office in May, saying that “our joint security is a priority for the future.”

Although Turkey has welcomed the steps the Swedish government has taken, it has also made it clear that these are not enough. In addition to the terrorist-related demands, Ankara has another condition it wants Stockholm to meet: lifting the ban on arms sales to Turkey that Sweden introduced after the country’s military incursion into northern Syria in 2019.

The latest surge in Turkish-Sweden tensions over last week’s Quran-burning incident are likely to dampen Sweden’s hopes for NATO membership. Ankara appears to have seized upon the widespread outcry as a means to counter Western pressures ahead of the forthcoming NATO Summit in Vilnius in which Sweden’s accession will be a main topic on the agenda.

One reason why Turkey would welcome a pretext to oppose or defer approval of Sweden’s NATO membership is that it does not want to anger Russia.

Ankara has adopted a neutral position on the war in Ukraine and positioned itself as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv. It successfully brokered the grain deal last year that allowed the export of Ukrainian grain, and it attempted to broker a ceasefire and peace deal before that.   

However, Erdogan may also have other objectives in mind, one being to use the recent incident as a means to bolster his profile as a champion of Islamic causes, strengthen his and his party’s standing among the religiously conservative segments of Turkish society, and reposition Istanbul at the heart of the Islamic world.

The International Organisation to Defend and Support the Prophet of Islam launched the Ansar Al-Nabi Academy in Istanbul in January at a ceremony attended by Muslim scholars and leaders from across the Arab and Islamic world.

The news was enthusiastically greeted by a broad segment of Arab and Muslim public opinion, especially since the academy aims to form scholars equipped to defend the Prophet Mohamed in all domains and to become a forum for the dissemination of information about the life of the Prophet and the Sunnah (Islamic traditions).   

Turkey may also try to leverage the Quran-burning incident to compel Sweden to cease its financial support for the Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG) in Syria. The previous Swedish government offered around $376 million in assistance to the Autonomous Administration of Northern Syria, which is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main contingent of which is the YPG which Ankara claims is affiliated with the PKK.

Despite the outrage the burning of the Quran in Sweden has caused in Turkish governmental circles and in Turkish public opinion, Ankara may see it as a means to achieve various political ends, whether to exact more concessions from Sweden, diffuse Western pressures ahead of the NATO Summit, advance its agenda in Syria or, domestically, rebuild Erdogan’s and the AKP’s popularity.

The latter has slid dramatically against the backdrop of the country’s worsening economic woes.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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