February 2, 2023

It wasn’t the first time Rasmus Paludan had set fire to the Quran. The leader of “Hard Line”, the far-Right Danish party, he was temporarily banned from entering Sweden in 2020 because he was planning to commit his habitual stunt of burning the sacred text at a protest in Malmö. But clearly, the injunction had no lasting effect on him: last week, on January 21, he was to be found outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, rattling off a lengthy diatribe against Islam and immigration. He concluded by holding up a copy of the Quran and setting it ablaze.

Swedish authorities condemned Paludan’s actions, while also reminding the world that the nation is committed to freedom of expression. Islamic authorities, meanwhile, have responded with outrage. Several countries have issued statements condemning Paludan — including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan and Oman — as well as the Scandinavian governments for offering police protection to those who would commit such blasphemy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Taliban interim government in Afghanistan also issued two statements, one calling on Islamic countries to adopt a joint stance towards such acts, and another asking the Swedish government to take concrete action to punish the culprits.

If it does not, the consequences could be severe. Sweden has been pushing to join Nato since shortly after the outbreak of war in Ukraine. But in order to join the alliance, it needs the approval of every single nation already in it — and that includes Turkey. Even before Paludan’s stunt, President Erdogan’s administration wasn’t particularly inclined to welcome Sweden, which it had repeatedly accused of enabling Kurdish militants. And in retaliation, Turkey promptly suspended talks on Nato expansion. “So you will let terror organisations run wild on your avenues and streets and then expect our support for getting into Nato. That’s not happening,” the outraged President said.

“Erdoğan and his administration have… framed themselves as defenders of Sunni Muslims throughout the world and thus were obligated to react strongly,” explains Tom Lord, co-founder of the Militant Wire research network. Even if Turkey backs down, there is “a chance that Sweden’s accession could be leveraged by Erdoğan’s administration to gain concessions from the US and certain EU countries”.

But exclusion from Nato is not the only consequence Sweden could face. Paludan’s Quran-burning has sparked an extremely hostile online backlash from a range of jihadist groups. The Pakistani Taliban (TTP), Afghan Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and the central Asian Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) have condemned Sweden, though the tone and optics of the condemnations differ. The TTP’s release — issued by its spokesman Muhammad Khorasani — is more politically calculated and mild in its language, resembling the statement published by the Taliban interim government in Afghanistan. Khorasani states that freedom of speech should not overstep the respect for Islamic symbols, rituals and values, arguing that acts such as Paludan’s constitute a violation of “so-called international law” that global organisations should address — or else dangerous consequences will follow.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, the Islamic State’s Af-Pak branch directly threatened and encouraged retaliatory attacks. It also impugned Islamic countries for issuing cowardly statements and staging weak protests without taking any practical action against the perpetrators and their countries of origin. Indeed, the response to the Quran-burning has caused tension not only between Sweden and Islamic groups, but between Islamic groups with different agendas. Pro-Al-Qaeda jihadist Hani al-Sibai issued a statement expressing anger not only against Sweden, Denmark and Norway, but also Arabic countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Morocco. He called for the “liberation” of Islamic countries from their regimes, which he described as puppets in the hands of the West.

Meanwhile ISKP took advantage of the incident to challenge its regional enemy, the Taliban. It mocked the interim government, saying that while it claims to have defeated the US in the name of jihad, it issued just a single tweet to condemn the desecration of the Quran in Sweden — while also receiving funds from the Swedish government and protecting foreign organisations. In the latest issue of the magazine Khorasan Ghag, published by ISKP mouthpiece Al-Azaim, the group dedicated several pages to blasphemous acts, threatening to conduct attacks not only in Sweden, but against European citizens wherever they are. Lashkar-e-Jhagvi, which recently resurfaced with its first attack in Pakistan after years of silence, issued a similarly bellicose statement, threatening Europeans with more attacks and lamenting that Muslim organisations with money and power are not taking direct action. Other pro-IS networks did likewise, promising to bring the bloodshed to the streets of Stockholm and wage war on Sweden, saying the “infidels” will continue burning Qurans if Muslims do not take up arms and instil fear into their Western enemies.

All these threats cannot be taken lightly, given the history of blasphemy-motivated terrorism in the West, and Europe in particular, in recent decades. The best-known examples include the beheading of Samuel Paty, the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and last year’s stabbing of Salman Rushdie. But there is an extensive history of plots and attacks targeting the citizens of countries where anti-Islam events take place. In 2005, after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of Muhammad, a series of demonstrations and attacks were carried out. Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist, was targeted in two assassination attempts in 2008 and 2010. The first plot was foiled by Danish intelligence, which busted a three-man cell made up of two Tunisians and a Dane of Moroccan descent; the second attempt was orchestrated by a would-be attacker with links to Al-Qaeda’s East Africa branch, Al-Shabaab.

Around the same time, in Sweden, similar assassination plots targeted Lars Vilks, who had drawn the Prophet Muhammad for a newspaper in 2007. Both Westergaard and Vilks survived repeated attempts on their lives. But when both died in 2021 — the former of illness and the latter in a car accident — radicals from across the jihadist spectrum, from Al-Qaeda to Islamic State to Taliban, celebrated. “The impact of the 2005 Jyllands-Posten and 2007 Lars Vilks cartoon controversies on the Western jihadi movement cannot be overstated,” extremism researcher Liam Duffy explains. “Al-Qaeda was able to exploit them as a radicalising tool due to the widespread anger outside of existing extremist circles…the blasphemous incidents were seen as an attack on Islam, even graver than the foreign policy grievances levied at the United States or Britain.”

For that reason, says Duffy, “Sweden and Denmark continued to be disproportionately targeted over other Western states all the way up until the start of the Syrian Civil War, which drew the jihadists’ attention away” — for a while. Now, Rasmus Paludan’s actions have made not only him a target but put Sweden and Denmark at markedly greater risk of terrorism again. Duffy refers to one IS-aligned propaganda group, which issued a direct threat towards Sweden, saying, “if there is no check on the freedom of your expression, then let your hearts be open to the freedom of our actions”, pointing out that this is a reference to legendary jihadist ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki’s influential “The Dust Will Never Settle Down” lecture, which urged violence against blasphemers in the West.

But despite all this — despite pro-Islamic State media outlet At-Taqwa calling upon supporters to kill Paludan and carry out violence against Sweden as well as other Western nations — the far-Right leader has not been deterred. Last Friday, he again set fire to a Quran, this time in front of a mosque in Copenhagen, before promising to do this “in front of the Turkish embassy every Friday until Sweden becomes a Nato member”. A couple of days later, retorting to accusations that he is on the Kremlin’s payroll (Putin would like nothing more than to see Sweden’s Nato membership blocked), he set another Quran on fire in front of the Russian embassy in Copenhagen, while making provocative statements directed at Chechnya.

Paludan’s activities may well have put paid to Sweden’s hopes of joining Nato, which would have implications for not only Scandinavian but also European security. They have also heightened the threat of terror across the West, while potentially making Westerners everywhere a target. Such acts have in the past inspired violence against both diplomatic missions and tourists. Meanwhile, they have soured both Sweden and Denmark’s relations with Islamic governments around the world. Turkey, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have even accused the nations of enabling Islamophobia, racism and discrimination. It is striking what one man’s repugnant actions can trigger.