by Miceál O’Hurley
STOCKHOLM — With relations between Stockholm and Ankara are at their lowest in modern history Sweden’s NATO bid is now deeply imperilled by Sweden’s own doing. The latest row between the two nations could not have come at a worse time for Stockholm. Why it failed to avoid such a self-inflicted injury that could have been prudently avoided remains a mystery. For now, prospects of Türkiye consenting to Sweden and Norway’s NATO ascension seem remote.
Despite a notorious and ongoing record of spewing anti-Islamic hate speech and last year’s “Qur’an Burning Tour” Sweden’s Police Authority (Polisen) declined to exercise their authority to impose reasonable “rules” on Swedish-Danish politician Rasmus Paludan’s demonstration in front of the Embassy of Türkiye in Stockholm last weekend. Sweden had every reason to believe Paludan would continue his pattern of vitriolic hate speech, incitement to violence, breaches of the peace and the violation of minority rights aimed at insulting Islam in general and Türkiye in particular. Still, Sweden empowered Paluden to continue his conduct as a provocateur that transgresses the line between freedom of expression and hate speech.
Swedish law clearly incorporates the fundamental truth that freedom of expression is by no means absolute. Both Swedish legislation and judicial determinations place clear limits upon what person can say or express by their actions. Sweden maintains a stringent prohibition on hate speech, defining it as “… publicly making statements that threaten or express disrespect for an ethnic group or similar group regarding their race, skin colour, national or ethnic origin, faith or sexual orientation”.
Contrary to claims Sweden’s claims it was compelled to issue the demonstration permit lest it infringe upon the freedom of expression prerogatives of Paludan and his radical, right-wing ‘Stram Kurs [Hard Line]’ party such assertions only seek to deflect responsibility for the debacle in which Sweden now finds itself. It was always within the lawful gift of the Polisen to place reasonable limitations upon the demonstration.
Paludan’s history demonstrated he uses public demonstrations to violate the rights of minorities with the intent to incite hatred and contempt for Sweden’s Muslim population.
Last year he led what he deemed a “Qur’an Burning Tour” replete with anti-Islamic and anti-Immigrant diatribes that often lasted for more than an hour. So shocking were Paludan’s demonstrations that complaints were made to the Polisen from cities across Sweden. Specifically citing Paladun’s multiple, public Qur’an burnings and hate-filled speeches, the Stockholm-based Civil Rights Protectors’ legal director, John Stauffer, wrote last year, “Sweden has legislation in place to protect minority groups against hate speech. We believe that Paludan has crossed the line of what freedom of expression allows.”
How and why the Polisen issued yet another demonstration permit to Paludan, to be staged in front of the Embassy of Türkiye no less, remains an outstanding question. The Swedish Police Authority (Polisen) website indicates under the sub-heading ‘Is a Demonstration Permit Necessary?’ it is within their authority to set reasonable boundaries on demonstration conduct:
When processing the permit, the Police can facilitate the demonstration by agreeing on rules and setting the time and place of the event… [emphasis added]
Given Paludan’s prior history of burning the Qur’an and inciting hate-speech, it would not have been unreasonable for Polisen to exercise diligence in setting rules that would prohibit more burnings of Qur’an or abusing Sweden’s free speech laws to incite hatred against Muslims, Türkiye or other Islamic nations. Sweden had the right and opportunity to balance the right of freedom of expression and the prohibition against hate speech and inciting violence. Curiously, it chose to do neither. It is not surprising therefore that last weekend’s demonstration outside of the Embassy of Türkiye saw Paludan dive head-first into the same miscreant conduct.
Sweden’s decision to facilitate a provocateur with a penchant for outrageous hate speech and Qur’an burnings designed to incite hatred of Muslims in general, and Türkiye in particular, was foreseeably reckless. The failure to even attempt to balance freedom of expression rights with the rights of minorities smacks of any real protection for vulnerable immigrants, minority religious rights or the dignity of vulnerable peoples.
In law, the axiom is, “Qui tacet consentire videtur” or simply translated, “Silence equals consent”. The international community should not be surprised at Ankara’s ire with Stockholm. Sweden both facilitated the demonstration and then with dozens of Polisen standing by idly failed to stop Paludan’s 57-minute anti-Islamic rant and Qur’an burning.
In the aftermath of this demonstration Stockholm and Ankara are at loggerheads with their relations. The events of the last year have now culminated in a devastating blow to Sweden’s ambitions to join NATO. It is worth reviewing the history to better understand how it has evolved, or as some assert – devolved – into the present predicament.
In May of 2022, following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and persistent threats to its neighbours, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin indicated that they would be apply to join NATO. Sweden also indicated its own NATO bid. Shortly thereafter Türkiye’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, voiced his objection to Sweden and Finland joining the transatlantic security alliance. As a NATO member Türkiye holds a veto over new members joining should it choose to exercise it.
Türkey has long stated their concerns over Sweden harbouring Kurds that Ankara considered terrorists wanted for violent crimes against Türkiye. Türkiye’s concerns about the inability to bring to trial Kurds who stand accused of crimes against Türkey and its citizens is not parochial. In June 2022, the European Union extended its sanctions against Kurdish terrorists including the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Countries across the globe have also designated these organisations “terrorists” and yet Sweden continues to deny Türkiye the right to extradite the accused for trial.
Concomitantly, following hours of negotiations prior to the NATO summit in Madrid last June Türkiye announced it would lift its veto over Sweden and Finland’s application to join the NATO bloc. After the negotiations Türkiye’s Minister for Justice disclosed that as part of the NATO-brokered deal he would seek the extradition of 33-alleged Kurdish fighters and coup plot suspects from Sweden and Finland. In December another hurdled arose when Sweden’s highest court blocked the extraditions of Bulent Kenes who stood accused by Türkiye for for attempting a coup against the government in Ankara. In response, Türkiye’s Minister for Foreign Affairs briefed the media that Sweden has failed to deliver on less than half of its commitments previously made in Madrid.
On 8 January 2023 Sweden’s Prime Minister, Ulf Kristersson, announced his country could not fulfil their commitments. He did claim to have confidence that Anakara would ultimately would not stand in the way of Sweden joining NATO. Relations between Sweden and Türkiye would precipitously deteriorate thereafter.
Emboldened by Sweden’s Supreme Court decision, only 4-days later, the pro-Kurdish Rojava Committee of Sweden posted a video depicting President Erdoğan strung-up, execution style, mimicking the hanging of Italy’s Benito Mussolini in 1945. The video, intentionally violent and provocative in its explicit content, further soured relations between Ankara and Stockholm. In the aftermath of the video’s posting Ankara summoned the Swedish Ambassador to Türkiye over countenancing the video’s violent content and continuing to protect those accused of crimes against Türkiye from facing prosecution.
Less than a month after the revolting video was posted in Stockhold the Paludan demonstration, replete with a Qur’an burning occurring while videos show Polisen looking-on without concern, has rendered the relationship between Sweden and Türkiye nearly fatally damaged. Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tobias Billström, Tweeted, “Islamophobic provocations are appalling. Sweden has a far-reaching freedom of expression, but it does not imply that the Swedish government, or myself, support the opinions expressed.”
While Stockholm has been at great pains to disassociate itself from the Paludan demonstration, the fact remains that with foreknowledge of his history of hate-speech and his staging last year’s “Qur’an Burning Tour” during Ramadan, Sweden chose to facilitate the far-right assault against Islam and Türkiye. Moreover, Minister Billström’s admission Paludan’s demonstration espoused “Islamophobic provocations” only underscores the failure of Sweden to impose reasonable “rules” before issuing the demonstration permit.
Last weekend’s speeches were almost identical in content to last year’s “Qur’an Burning Tour” speeches and burning of the holy book of Islam by Paludan. By acknowledging Saturday’s demonstration had “Islamophobic provocations” and last year’s events by Paludan had strikingly similar conduct and statements, it further underscores that Sweden knew hate speech and anti-Islamic provocation would occure and yet chose to facilitate it and a Qur’an burning instead of exercising prudence and good judgment by imposing “rules” which were within its gift. Sweden’s commitment to minority rights and tolerance of the Islamic faith seem fleeting at best.
Unsurprisingly, Ankara cancelled this week’s scheduled visit by the Swedish Minister of Defense, Pål Jonson. His visit was primarily focused on the topic of Sweden’s NATO accession ambitions. It is difficult to see how in light of Sweden’s refusal to rein-in violent videos by pro-Kurdish groups, grant a demosntration permit to a known Islamophobe and provocateur only to stand idly by while Paludan engaged in a meandering 1-hour anti-Islam and anti-Türkiye diatribe, including the public burning of a Qur’an, can be overcome quickly. Confidence in Sweden’s commitment to equality, minority rights, religious tolerance and Stockholm’s facilitation of abject insults to Islam and one of their international partners has largely dissipated. Türkiye’s Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, announced the meeting with the Swedish Minister of Defense that was to take place last week had been cancelled because it “has lost its significance and meaning”.
Sweden’s Jonson had a different view. He claimed the meeting had been “postponed” after talks with Türkiye’s Minister for Defense took place last Friday on the sidelines of the Ukrainian defense discussions at Ramstein AFB, Germany. According to a Tweet from Minister for Defense Jonson, “Our relations with Türkiye are very important to Sweden, and we look forward to continuing the dialogue on common security and defence issues at a later date.” Türkiye has not confirmed a postponement leaving the impression that the meeting was definitively cancelled based on current negotiations.
Türkiye’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, called the demonstration including Paludan’s burning of a Qur’an a “hate crime” that falls outside the boundaries of free speech and enters into the realm of that could not be characterised as freedom of expression. He had asked Sweden not to allow the “vile act” to take place and yet the permit was issued, without restrictions, anyway allowing for the heinous conduct to take place.
President Erdoğan senior advisors, İbrahim Kalın, also decried Sweden’s facilitation of the offensive demonstration. In a Tweet he wrote, “The burning of the Holy Qur’an in Stockholm is a clear crime of hatred and humanity. We vehemently condemn this. Allowing this action despite all our warnings is encouraging hate crimes and Islamophobia. The attack on sacred values is not freedom but modern barbarism.”
Sweden’s missteps over the last year seem at stark odds with their stated goal of joining NATO which requires Türkiye’s goodwill. Its lack of fulfilment on the promises made in Madrid of last year have created a serious impediment for Stockholm to gain Ankara’s consent to their NATO ambitions. Now, Stockholm’s granting of a demonstration permit outside of Türkiye’s mission coupled by the refusal of the Polisen’s to reasonably exercise their powers to impose “rules” to prohibit hate speech or provocative anti-Islamic conduct during Paluden’s demonstration has further alienated right-thinking spectators, allies and most importantly – Türkiye.
Frederick Barnard’s quip, “ A picture paints a thousand words” seems apropos. The videos of last weekend’s vile demonstration by Paludan not only captures for posterity his viltriolic hate speech but depicts the Polisen standling idly by while he burned yet another Qur’an in an act he both knew and hoped would stoke hatred and contempt. Sweden’s commitment to protect its own minorities from hate speech and incitement, apply its own laws prohibiting such conduct and speech, or exercising diligence in setting prudent “rules” on the conduct of a demonstration it had every reason to believe would violate the law has made Sweden a prisoner of its own-making.
Sweden stands uniquely responsible for the severe deterioration of relations with Türkiye. In light of their NATO accession ambitions their pattern of missteps that would put an end to their NATO membership makes Sweden’s predicament nothing short of a self-inflicted debacle.