21st Sep 2023

Koran-burnings to continue, despite Sweden terror threat

  • Swedish police to handle security and applications for future Koran-burnings no differently than before (Photo: News Oresund)
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Koran-burnings in Sweden are to go on as before, despite its upgrade of the terrorist threat from "violent Islamism".

One application to do so has been lodged for Saturday (19 August) by a 47-year old Iranian woman, Marjan Bahrami, who aims to burn the sacred Muslim book on a beach in Bromma, 10km from Stockholm city centre.

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"Why shouldn't I burn the Koran? There are only good reasons for doing so," she told EUobserver in a written statement.

"Islam is the greatest threat to democracy and human rights," she said.

"I want to be the voice of the victims who are being executed only for their complaints against Islam and its governments and nothing else — the people of Iran and Afghanistan, who live in the worst conditions imaginable," she added.

The last time Bahrami burnt the Koran, also in Bromma, on 3 August, there were five Muslim counter-protestors, 15 journalists, and a handful of police.

The peaceful event, which took place on a rainy day, went largely unreported in international media.

There were also other Koran-burnings in Sweden, on 14 and 18 August, which mostly fell under the international radar.

"Reactions to the Koran-burnings during the summer are continuing during August. However, we have seen a continuing decrease in the amount of reactions in media (news media and social media) abroad", said the Swedish Institute, a government body which monitors foreign coverage of Sweden.

But three such protests earlier this year — next to the Turkish embassy, outside a mosque, and beside parliament — did cause a global uproar, including violent anti-Swedish demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq.

These burnings were carried out by an Iraqi protester called Salwan Momika and a Danish activist called Rasmus Paludan.

Bahrami told EUobserver she didn't know either of them.

Paul Levin, an international relations professor at Stockholm University, said: "There are many factors that determine whether a Koran-burning is picked up by media and by various actors who have reason to protest it."

"There may also be state actors who have incentives to inflame the situation and they may make tactical choices to try to amplify some, but not all, events," he added, referring to past Arabic, Russian, and Turkish state media interest.

"It is hard to predict what will go viral and what will pass unnoticed," Levin said.

"Some of these burners stream the Koran burnings on, inter alia, TikTok and narrate it in Arabic, thus opening up for audiences in the Arabic speaking world," Mårten Schultz, a law professor from Stockholm University, also said.

But in any case, the Swedish intelligence service, Sapo, warned that the cumulative effect of events was creating danger.

"The threat of attacks from actors within violent Islamism has increased over the year. Sweden has gone from being considered a legitimate target for terrorist attacks to being considered a priority target," Charlotte von Essen, the Sapo chief, said on Thursday.

She raised Sweden's terrorism-risk alert from three ("elevated threat") to four ("high threat") — its highest level in seven years.

The top level is five ("very high threat").

Sapo upgraded its alert "not due to any individual event", but for "strategic and long-term" reasons, it said in a statement.

Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson said on TV the same day "we know that planned terror attacks have been averted", without giving details.

Levin, from Stockholm University, said: "Isis members have been arrested for planning attacks against Swedish targets in Turkey and an Al Qaeda TV channel last weekend encouraged Muslims to impart 'revenge' on Sweden and Denmark [which also hosted anti-Koran protests]."

Islamist extremist groups Isis and Al Qaeda are designated as terrorists by the EU and the US. Denmark has kept its terrorist-threat level unchanged.

"We've observed attacks on Swedish embassies and consulates abroad as well as an international campaign that depicts Sweden as anti-Islamic. One person was shot at the Swedish consulate in İzmir [Turkey] in what's now being treated as a terrorist attack," Levin added.

"It seems quite clear that there's a heightened threat level at the moment," he said.

Rule of law

But despite that, Koran-burning remains protected under free-speech laws in Sweden's constitution.

Swedish courts have said it doesn't amount to incitement of hatred against Muslims and Sapo's threat upgrade doesn't give police any emergency powers.

"The general idea is you can't limit freedom of speech and freedom of assembly just because other people get angry and might start committing acts of violence against the demonstrators," Mårten Schultz, a law professor at Stockholm University, previously told this website.

"That would mean violent mobs could take away your rights," Schultz said.

And when EUobserver asked Stockholm Police if they would handle security arrangements or applications for future Koran-burnings any differently in light of the Sapo upgrade, a police spokesman said on Friday: "Most likely no".

This story was updated on 20 August 2023, adding quotes by the Swedish Institute and Mårten Schultz.

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