Danish far-right provocateur Rasmus Paludan burnt a Quran outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm on January 21. In response, protests erupted across the Islamic world, with calls for a boycott of Swedish goods and for the arrest or death of Paludan. Turkey has threatened to delay Sweden's trilateral ascension talks with Finland to join NATO, and Paludan plans to burn more Qurans in the Nordic countries in the following weeks.
There is significant debate within Sweden about who is ultimately responsible for the protest. Russia has a clear geopolitical incentive to organize this kind of protest, but links to Russia remain inconclusive, and the debate has been swept up with concerns about freedom of speech, religious tolerance, and the balance of power in Europe.
On January 11, Kurdish protesters hung an effigy of Erdogan by its feet in front of the Town hall in Stockholm to draw attention to a demonstration against joining NATO planned on January 21. As part of Sweden's NATO entry negotiations, Turkey has demanded Kurdish activists be extradited to Turkey and cut ties with PKK/PYD and the Gülen movement.
The protest was condemned by foreign secretary Tobias Billström, and Swedish PM Ulf Kristersson, leader of Moderaterna, called it a "despicable act," especially in a country where there have been two murders of high-ranking politicians, but defended the right to freedom of expression. Erdogan was not satisfied with the response, saying Sweden is not doing enough to prevent terrorism.
This sparked a domestic discussion about freedom of expression, which is seen as a core Swedish value. In response to the discussion and the planned demonstration against joining NATO on January 21, two more protests were planned: one by the Islamophobic Danish politician Rasmus Paludan and one pro-Turkish demonstration.
Who was involved with the protest?
Paludan is a Danish politician who heads the far-right Stram Kurs (Hard Line) party. He has staged multiple Quran-burning protests, spreading anti-Muslim sentiment and talking about the "dangers" of immigration. He has been convicted of racist hate speech in Denmark on multiple occasions.
In an interview with Dagens Nyheter after the protest, Paludan said that the idea for the burning was not his but came from either Chang Frick or a reporter from Exakt24, a Swedish nationalist alternative media site. Aftonbladet identified the Exakt24 reporter as Christian Pettersson, who has, among other things, been collecting names of "violent leftwing Kurdish activists" to pass to Turkish authorities.
Frick owns the alternative media Nyheter Idag and appears as an anchor on Riks – a show owned and financed by the Sweden Democrats – and has previously worked for Ruptly, a subsidiary of RT. However, he claims he has not worked for them since 2014. He has aired pro-Kremlin and pro-Putin sentiments numerous times, according to Jonatan Leman at the anti-racist organization Expo, and Patrik Oksanen, a senior fellow at the thinktank Stockholm Free world forum, has described Nyheter Idag's pro-Russian narratives in response to an article about Russian narratives in far-left and far-right media in 2018. The alternative media ecosystem in Sweden appears to have a number of Russian ties, and Frick's coverage seems to hover in that grey area. In a New York Times article from 2018, he joked, "Putin is my real boss!" but asserted his independence.
Frick paid for the protest permit on Paludan's behalf and had contact with left-wing activists, and wanted to organize something similar among his right-wing contacts. In an interview by Al-kompis, an Arabic-Swedish Newspaper, he expressed regret for the protest and the burning of a Quran. In Svenska Dagbladet, he again stated that he wanted a Turkish flag to be burnt, not a Quran. Frick also claims to have helped 25 Ukrainian refugees come to Sweden in March, but there has been no independent confirmation of that claim.
International Fallout and Russian Involvement
The international reactions were swift and critical, particularly in Turkey. Turkish officials condemned the burning and postponed NATO talks about Sweden's ascension into the defense pact. There was a large protest outside the Swedish embassy in Ankara, the Swedish consulate in Istanbul, and in Batman. An armed man was also caught outside the Swedish consulate in Istanbul.
Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Kuwait condemned the protest. Al-Azhar university in Cairo called for a boycott of Swedish products and companies. Protests were staged in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan.
There were calls for boycotts on Twitter, and new hashtags gained significant traction, such as #STOP_SWEDEN, #StupidSweden, #SwedenisTerrorCountry, #boycottswedenproducts, and #BoycottSwedenBrands.
In addition to the expected outrage from countries around the world, The International Human Rights Foundation and the European Commission also criticized the burning.
Other nations and organizations weighed in on Russia's potential involvement: the U.S.-based Robert Lansing Institute published an article claiming the burning was a Russian military intelligence operation. Former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb wrote on Twitter that the protest was part of Russia's "hybrid warfare." Finland also suggested they potentially join NATO alone and not jointly with Sweden, as previously suggested by the trilateral negotiations. The intention is still to join the alliance with Sweden, however.
Swedish PM Ulf Kristersson condemned the burning of the Quran but defended the right to freedom of speech. Jimmie Åkesson of the Sweden Democrats found it worrying that the Swedish PM expressed sympathy for Muslims, which Åkesson said was opposed to Swedish freedom of expression. Richard Jomshof, speaker for the Committee of Justice, commented on the reactions in the Islamic world by saying, "If they are offended, burn one hundred more [Qurans]." The government relies on parliamentary support from the Sweden Democrats under the Tidö agreement.
The collaboration between Frick and Riks was criticized, and the Sweden democrats denied any involvement in the demonstration and pointed to Chang Frick also being part of a Swedish Public Television (SVT) show. However, SVT is not party-aligned television.
Liberals in the Swedish government were furious about Chang Fricks's involvement and demanded that the Sweden Democrats cut ties with him and other alternative media sites. Party leader Jimmie Åkesson denied the demands, saying that Chang Frick has no connections to the Sweden Democrats and called it "political spin from the left." Riks has stated that Frick has continued support and is hired as a consultant.
At a press conference about the current security situation, Mikael Tofvesson at the Swedish Psychological Defence agency (MPF) stated that they saw an increased spread of disinformation and propaganda targeting Sweden, including from the same actors that disseminated disinformation about the LVU campaign and the Easter riots during 2022, in the wake of the Quran burning and the NATO bid. The spread was larger than during the previous episodes, with a large increase in the dissemination of violent messaging and the idea that Sweden was a legitimate target of terrorism attacks. The MPF has also monitored attempts from Russia to influence operations by spreading false claims about the Swedish and Finnish NATO bid.
On January 31, an opinion piece published in Aftonbladet, "SD's connection to Russia is an urgent security risk," gave a comprehensive account of the suspicious connection between the Sweden Democrats and the pro-Russian alternative media milieu. It was signed by seven prominent actors from academia, Swedish media, liberal think tanks and the anti-racist foundation Expo.
According to Jonathan Leman at EXPO, Frick's actions appear to have both precedence and a clear political affiliation.
"Last summer, Chang Frick tweeted the idea of Paludan burning a Quran outside the Turkish embassy," Leman said. "In addition to his role as editor-in-chief of an SD-friendly newspaper and presenter of the SD's communication channel (Riks), Frick also engages in political activism and organizes demonstrations. That is ostentatious in itself."
Leman continued, "It is also noteworthy that he does so in collaboration and dialogue with notorious right-wing extremist actors, such as Christian Peterson at Exakt24."
Calling Chang Frick a Russian propagandist and saying that the demonstration was a Russian military intelligence operation may be an exaggeration. However, Frick's statements about not wanting to anger Muslims or being critical of Islam, the Kremlin-friendly connections of Swedish Alternative media, and the inclusion of Rasmus Paludan all complicate and obscure the picture. There is no public explanation for Frick, Pettersson, and Paludan's supposed collusion, apart from wanting to protest against Turkey and Erdogan. Frick presents himself as being in the dark and powerless about the situation in the aftermath. Regarding the Exakt24 reporter, there has been silence. Only Paludan's objective remains clear: offend Islam and portray Muslims as violent.
Image credit: Fredrik Sandberg/TT News Agency/via REUTERS