The World Today for August 16, 2023


An Unholy Temperature


Parents with children throwing tantrums in public to get attention often just try to move to the side, avoid eye contact with bystanders and pray the outbursts will pass quickly without too much notice.

That approach hasn’t been working out too well for Sweden and Denmark recently, though.

As the two Scandinavian countries grapple with Quran-burning protesters in their midst, the torching of the Islamic holy book has caused massive diplomatic headaches, an uptick in security threats, economic repercussions and much handwringing at home over freedom of speech, ethics and respect for minorities.

Protesters burning the Quran isn’t new in Scandinavia nor is controversy over other acts deemed blasphemous to Muslims. However, this latest round starting in January when Danish-Swedish far-right politician Rasmus Paludan ignited a Quran outside the Turkish embassies in Stockholm and Copenhagen has been even more provocative, the reported.

Since then, the number of Quran-burning incidents has grown steadily, as have applications to ignite Islam’s holy book (and also the Torah and the Bible), putting the Swedish and Danish governments in the hot seat. For example, book burnings have caused protests against Sweden around the Muslim world, most notably in Iraq in July where the Swedish embassy in Baghdad was stormed and set on fire, NPR reported.

Iraq also cut its diplomatic ties with Sweden while others have signaled they may follow: The Organization of Islamic Cooperation of 57 nations called on its members to downgrade their diplomatic ties with the two countries. And Muslims around the region have called for boycotts of Swedish products, threatening a trade relationship worth $4.88 billion in 2022, reported Deutsche Welle.

Turkey, meanwhile, has used the incidents to threaten to hold up Sweden’s NATO membership application, questioning the country’s “reliability,” said the Associated Press.

In the interim, Danish and Swedish intelligence officials are raising concerns over terror threats and the Swedish government has shored up border controls and given police enhanced stop-and-search and other surveillance powers, Reuters reported.

“We are currently in the most serious security situation since the Second World War,” Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said. “We are aware that states and state-like actors are actively exploiting the situation.”

His minister for civil defense, meanwhile, says that “Russia-backed actors” have been “amplifying incorrect statements such as that the Swedish state is behind the desecration of holy scriptures.”

He’s probably not wrong. It’s a small group of “angry men” from obscure far-right organizations with strong ties to Stram Kurs, Paludan’s nationalist, anti-Islam movement, mostly responsible for the Quran-desecration, according to Danish media, which says these folks just want more attention. Paludan’s demonstration permit, meanwhile, was paid for by a Swedish journalist who had worked for a Kremlin propaganda channel, according to the Economist.

Russia, of course, is thrilled at anything that would prevent NATO’s expansion and bring turmoil to Western nations. If the controversy lures Middle East nations to become closer to Russia, so much the better.

Still, it’s not just Russia that benefits from setting Qurans alight.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan found it useful to use the controversy to show voters ahead of May’s election how he was a force to be reckoned with internationally by threatening NATO’s expansion. Polls repeatedly showed how international issues won him votes over the bread-and-butter concerns of his top opponent.

In Iraq, the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr scored points when his supporters set fire to the embassy, making the government look weak ahead of elections later this year, the Washington Post reported.

Meanwhile, Sweden and Denmark want the incendiary issue to go away. Both countries are currently looking at ways to legally stop the burnings, including mulling a ban on such protests, at least in front of embassies, CNN reported. But both countries have near-absolute protections on free speech and the Swedish prime minister has stressed that those would not be weakened.

Regardless, it might be too late. Because it’s too useful to too many people that the burnings go on.

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