The Turkish government has canceled a planned meeting with Sweden’s Defense Minister Pål Jonson after a demonstration outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm on Saturday saw the burning of a Quran by an anti-Islam, Danish-Swedish politician.
Rasmus Paludan, the controversial leader of the right-wing, identitarian Stram Kurs party in Denmark, burned a copy of the Quran during a rally on Saturday afternoon outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, sparking a sharp backlash within the Turkish government, which had called on Swedish authorities earlier in the day to ban the demonstration.
In front of a modest crowd and surrounded by police, Paludan set fire to the Islamic holy book with a lighter following a speech in which he denounced Islam and attacked Sweden’s liberal immigration policy.
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“If you don’t think there should be freedom of expression, you have to live somewhere else,” he told counter-protesters nearby.
The event coincided with another rally outside Stockholm City Hall by critics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in support of the Kurdish minority in Turkey. The protest, organized by the Kurdish Democratic Society Center, saw 600-700 people stomp all over a flag with a portrait of Erdoğan laid out on the ground.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the vile attack on our holy book… Permitting this anti-Islam act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values, under the guise of freedom of expression is completely unacceptable,” read a statement by the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom tweeted following the Quran book burning that while “Sweden has far-reaching freedom of expression… it does not imply that the Swedish government, or myself, support the opinions expressed.”
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson tweeted: “Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of democracy. But what is legal is not necessarily appropriate. Burning books that are holy to many is a deeply disrespectful act.”
Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar subsequently canceled talks with his Swedish counterpart where Turkey’s opposition to Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership was expected to be discussed. He claimed the meeting was canceled because it “has lost its significance and meaning.”
Turkish protesters responded in kind to the Quran burning by setting alight a Swedish flag in footage circulating on social media.
Tensions were then further inflamed by remarks made by President of the Turkic World Youth Council Ramazan İzol who tweeted on Saturday: “If I catch this rascal who burned the Quran, I will burn him alive.”
İzol doubled down on his controversial tweet on Sunday, insisting he has “no fear of anyone but Allah.”
The diplomatic fallout is expected to further hinder the chances of NATO accession for Finland and Sweden, which are currently being blocked by Ankara.
In May of last year, Turkish President Erdoğan told a news conference the country “will not say ‘yes’ to those who apply sanctions to Turkey to join NATO.” He was referring to the decision taken by the Swedish government in 2019 to suspend arms sales to Turkey due to its ongoing military operation in Syria.
Perhaps more importantly, the Turkish government remains incensed at the two Scandinavian nations, which it accuses of harboring those it claims to be terrorists and members of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
According to the Turkish justice ministry, Sweden and Finland have failed to respond positively to 33 extradition requests for alleged terrorists over the past five years.