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notability: This is not intended to be another "why is there racism" question. The Koran-burning and related activities have had direct impact on NATO membership discussions and delays. Based on that, I think this particular situation has a potential international relations aspect that could benefit from some further exploration and fact-based answers.


Al Jazeera's July 25, 2023 Qurans burned outside Egyptian, Turkish embassies in Denmark begins:

A small group of far-right protesters set fire to copies of Islam’s holy book, the Quran, in front of the Egyptian and Turkish embassies in Denmark’s capital Copenhagen.

Tuesday’s anti-Islam demonstration in Copenhagen by a far-right, ultra-nationalist group called Danish Patriots followed Quran burnings the group staged on Monday and last week in front of the Iraqi embassy.

Two such incidents have also taken place in neighbouring Sweden over the past month1.

Racism and xenophobia can be found in any country if you look hard enough, but when it rises to specific anti-group demonstrations including burning things (e.g. How does one buy a burnable American flag in Tehran?) there's likely an articulable history or cause. For example, rise of anti-Muslim public sentiment and actions (some may argue even in law enforcement and government in some cases) in the US has may have its proximal cause in the September 11, 2001 attacks resulting in the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City and its associated trauma on the city and country and loss of 3,000 lives that day (and likely many in the following years due to hazardous substances released by the collapse and inferno).

The anti-Muslim racism and xenophobia was subsequently amplified by various groups in the US as well as some prominent politicians.

Question: What history or events are likely to have triggered, or are being used by Koran-burning anti-Muslim groups in Denmark and Sweden to justify their deliberately inflammatory actions2?


1"Past months" actually links to an article from April 19, 2022, or about 15 months previous to this article. Hat tip to @ccprog for pointing that out, who also goes on to say:

...the Quran burnings in Sweden in June 2023 I know about were not staged by Swedish nationalists, but by an Iraqi refugee.

2One might argue otherwise, but to me burning Korans in public in media-covered events feels more like it's intended to inflict pain and outrage on Muslims rather than to inspire fellow citizens, but that's just my current impression.

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6 Answers 6

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The applications to the police for permits for demonstrations are public, and the major Swedish newspaper DN managed to find all 10 individuals who have requested a permit for burning religious texts.(Except Danish politician Rasmus Paludan, but he explicitly states that he's motivated by an opposition to Muslim immigration and Islam as a whole.) The linked article contains their age, gender, citizenship information, basic information about contacts with government agencies, and their own statements about their motivations as given to the journalist.

What follows is my own translation/summary of what is known about the 10 individuals and what they state motivated them.

  1. Man, age 37, Iraqi citizen. (Instigator for this round of burnings.) Has applied for asylum in Sweden. According to Migrationsverket (immigration agency) there are circumstances to his asylum case making it likely he would be deported back to Iraq. Alleged member of Iran-supported paramilitary organisation Popular Mobilization Forces that fought against IS. Considering the response to the burning, it is likely that he cannot be deported any more. When asked by the journalist what motivated him, he says that "This book is dangerous to the Swedish society and I think everyone should have the right to burn it. The next step would be to ban it." Has a prior conviction for threatening a former room mate with a knife.

  2. Man, age 48, Swedish citizen since 2005, immigrated from Iraq in 1998. Participated in the first burning organised by #1. Claims to be motivated by seeing people demonstrating against the burnings, and by the subsequent attacks on the Swedish embassy. Has prior convictions for using forged paperwork, illegal threats, and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

  3. Woman, age 48, Swedish citizen since 2012, immigrated from Iran in 2006. Has sent in an application, but has not received a response yet. Unclear motivation when asked by the journalist, but claims to be acting alone and that she has refused police presence at her (future) burning, because "I am a Christian and God will protect me". Long history with social services and the legal system, including a no contact order issued against her.

  4. Man, age 29, Swedish citizen since 2021, immigrated from Syria in 2016. Wanted to burn the Bible and the Torah as a protest against the burnings. Claims to be motivated by a desire to show that burning any religious text is a hate crime and not freedom of speech. Was given permission but gave a speech instead of the burning. No criminal convictions.

  5. Man, age 29, Swedish citizen. Received a permit to burn the Koran, instead burned a copy of the Nato treaty. Claims to be motivated by a desire to sabotage the Swedish Nato process. One prior conviction for theft.

  6. Man, age 36, Swedish citizen since 2022, immigrated from Egypt in 2013. Requested permission to burn a Torah, but retracted the request before it could be decided on. Wanted to call attention to his belief that burning a religious text is a hate crime. Has had a no contact order issued against him, which was revoked the same year.

  7. Man, age 43, Swedish citizen since 2018, immigrated from Pakistan in 2010. Requested a permit to burn the Bible and the Torah, but instead burned the police permit and a photo of Rasmus Paludan. Also claims to be motivated by a desire to show that burning religious texts is a hate crime. Has a no contact order against him after being charged with aggravated domestic abuse. Also a conviction for assault and an offence related to performance enhancing drugs.

  8. Woman, age 58, Swedish citizen. Applied for a permit to burn a Koran, but retracted it stating that it was too complicated and she was worried about arranging security. Claims to be motivated by suggestions that freedom of speech might be restricted because of demands from authoritarian regimes. No criminal convictions.

  9. Man, age 49, Swedish citizen since 2009, immigrated from Norway 1994. Wants to burn the Rigveda (not yet decided on). His stated motivation is to cause reactions from the rest of the world, and not just Muslims, Jews, and Christians. He wants to also burn a statue of the Buddha. His goal is to provoke a change in the Swedish constitution banning burnings of religious symbols. No criminal convictions.

  10. Man, age 37, Swedish citizen. Applied for a permit to burn the Torah, which was rejected based on failure to pay the administrative fee to have it processed. Claims to be motivated by a desire to demonstrate double standards and arbitrariness in who gets a police permit. No criminal convictions.

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  • 9
    This is an incredibly enlightening answer, helping me and other readers to have a better understanding of what actually is and is not happening, and how it differs substantially from the pictures in my mind that are painted by the various news blurbs I've read. Also, a government or police-issued "permit to burn the Koran/Bible"!? I had no idea there was such a thing, in Sweden or anywhere else!
    – uhoh
    Jul 26, 2023 at 20:02
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    Without making light of serious protests that are causing real distress to people, I find this idea hilarious. "I applied for a permit to burn the Torah, but was rejected for failing to pay administrative fees." Just the idea that a government issues permits to burn specific books (in the context of a public demonstration) is really funny to me. Jul 26, 2023 at 20:11
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    @uhoh ryanjensen Technically, it's a permit for "anordnande av allmän sammankomst", arranging a public gathering. You fill in a form available here: polisen.se/tjanster-tillstand/tillstand-ansok/… with information about the organiser, what activities you're planning, time, location, and expected number of participants. These people have all filled in "burning [religious text]" in the activities field.
    – user141592
    Jul 27, 2023 at 6:30
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    It seems this explains the motivation clearly: Burning the Koran is a great way to prevent being deported to an Islamic country. Why shout racism here? The utilitarian explanation is so strong. Jul 28, 2023 at 15:10
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    While the information about these applications is interesting, I don't think they paint a representative picture of the motivations of the participants in the Quran burnings which are at the center of this controversy. Most of them seems to be reactive to the original events. Some of them seems to not have resulted in actual burnings, and we don't know how many people may have attended the ones that did. Excluding Paludan was probably relevant for the DN article, but he's probably the most relevant person to answer this question.
    – jkej
    Jul 28, 2023 at 15:25
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Frame challenge: The question asks for specific history or events to have triggered Quran burnings. I don't think any particular events are needed or even related to the recent burnings.

What is special about a Quran burning is the massive impact for very little investment. A Quran can easily be purchased in most Western countries, so all it takes to stage a Quran burning is say 100 Euros and three guys with a free afternoon willing to do it. That is enough to trigger an international diplomatic incident. I can't think of any other action that causes so much trouble for so little investment.

In consequence I don't think any specific trigger events are needed, all it takes is some very few people trying to go for the maximum troll factor they can achieve. And they succeeded in that.

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    It's true that Quran is an easy target: Tintin book burning in Canada barely made it on the news at all, not to mention a total failure to provoke riots in Belgium :) Jul 26, 2023 at 13:16
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    I think this is a good observation and just want to add that those that have done this current burning are complete nobodies. "Danish Patriots" is nothing more than a facebook group. Jul 26, 2023 at 14:38
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    I'd also tie this in with far right accelerationism, which seeks to accelerate the "inevitable" war between the races. They hope that the extreme reaction they can provoke will touch off this war. Jul 26, 2023 at 15:01
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    Interestingly, from the - alleged - motivations of some of the 10 petitioners (make it illegal) and this answer, a simple enough solution would be to make desecrations illegal, with a reasonable but dissuasive fine for "breaching the peace". And, from this answer, for media coverage to basically ignore these people to deny them their soapbox. Jul 27, 2023 at 1:02
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    @PaulJohnson Islam is not a race.
    – Riwen
    Jul 29, 2023 at 8:07
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Turkey

Turkey put barriers in the way of Sweden's entry into NATO (in part out of unhappiness over European opposition to Turkey joining the E.U. or the European free trade area).

Protestors sought to protest the Turkish embassy because they were unhappy about this official policy of Turkey which they perceived did harm to the security of Sweden.

They probably burned books holy to Muslims when doing so, because they felt that this would express their dissatisfaction with Turkey most forcefully.

Also, they may view Turkey's objection to Sweden's entry into NATO as associated with the fact that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim NATO member unlike all other NATO members except Albania, so they may feel that this outlier objection to Sweden's NATO membership is driven by the predominantly Muslim faith of Turkish people. There is, of course, no reason to believe that this is the case. The connection is only indirect in the sense that opposition in Europe to Turkey's entry into the E.U. is driven to a significant extent by right wing opposition to the move because Turkey is predominantly Muslim and Turkey's opposition to Sweden's NATO membership was in part in retaliation for the partially anti-Muslim animus directed at it that has interfered with its national aspirations.

Sweden is about 3-8% Muslim and this is its most visible and prominent minority population. This includes a small, but not entirely insignificant, Turkish minority population. The Islamic immigration that Sweden has permitted over the last fifty years or so is one of the rallying cries of discontent that the far-right in Sweden has raised vis-a-vis the Swedish government.

The far right in Sweden fears that this immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, and a growing domestic population of Muslims, will undermine Swedish culture and the quality of Swedish society.

So, it is natural, in terms of political tactics, for a far right group in Sweden to want to assign an anti-Muslim angle to any international diplomatic dispute in which Sweden may be involved in with a predominantly Muslim country.

Egypt

Egypt, which is also a predominantly Muslim country, really has nothing to do with any recent developments in or affecting Sweden.

Egypt isn't a major source of immigration to Sweden. Instead:

Muslims in Sweden most often originate from Iraq, Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, the Iraqis being by far the largest group in 2015. Most Iranians and Iraqis fled as refugees to Sweden during the Iran–Iraq War from 1980 to 1988.

The second-largest Muslim group consists of immigrants or refugees from Eastern Europe, particularly from former Yugoslavian countries, most of them being Bosniaks, who number 12,000. There is also a sizeable community of Somalis, who numbered 40,165 in 2011.

They are followed by Muslim refugees from Syria and Somalia, two very rapidly growing groups. Two other groups, residing in Sweden for a decade longer, are people from Turkey and Lebanon.

Egypt hasn't had any role in Sweden's request to join NATO and hasn't been a very prominent player in the diplomacy related to the Ukraine War that drove Sweden to seek NATO membership. Egypt has also had essentially no role in any of the conflicts that have driven Muslim immigration to Sweden.

Egypt has non-hostile relationships with both Russia and with Western Europe and the U.S., and it is not really involved in any international matters that matter to Sweden right now.

Presumably, Egypt's embassy is being targeted just because, if you are a far right group who is anti-Muslim due to your unhappiness with Muslim immigration, and you are going to protest one Muslim nation's embassy, you may as well protest another while you are at it. In their eyes: "They all look the same."

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  • in part out of unhappiness over European opposition to Turkey joining the E.U. - can you offer some source for this? Note that they supported Finland. If it was really about joining EU, holding two countries hostage is better than one - NATO can't kick out Turkey anyway (Turkey allying with Russia and / or China is NATO's worst nightmare). Turkey does have genuine security concerns due to the political activism of Kurds in Sweden and has had diplomatic tiffs with Sweden over this in the past.
    – sfxedit
    Jul 28, 2023 at 20:37
  • @sfxedit The link also identifies additional reasons for Turkey's opposition. npr.org/2023/07/05/1185979617/…
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 28, 2023 at 22:38
  • But there's nothing in the article that states Turkey is blocking Sweden's NATO membership as leverage for EU membership. In fact, it points out that Turkey had similar concern with Finland but Finland resolved it, whereas Swedish response has not been satisfactory.
    – sfxedit
    Jul 29, 2023 at 10:31
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Russia may be funding this (source, the Guardian).

Permit for demonstration at which anti-Islam provocateur burned Muslim holy book was paid for by far-right journalist linked to Moscow-backed media

It is explainable why Russia would not want Turkey finding a common talk with Sweden about its NATO membership. Not "Islamophobia", just a provocation. If any other religion would be more dominant in Turkey, would find something else to burn.

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    While certainly to Russian advantage and while Russian involvement is very likely true (blaming Russia for it certainly also is attractive to Western politicians), the whole Koran-burning farce predates Russia's invasion. If you broaden the subject to say Charlie Hebdo's cartoons it is hard to claim they were manipulated by Russia. So, it's not just Russia. Jul 27, 2023 at 18:48
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    Maybe. It isn't exactly a big budget operation. Is it so hard to think that a conservative journalist couldn't afford this and wouldn't be inclined to do it even without Russian funding? Also, there is no reason for Russia to be anti-Egypt.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 27, 2023 at 22:04
  • By that logic, it could be Swedish political activists behind it too - unlike Finland, support for Sweden joining NATO is still a thin majority.
    – sfxedit
    Jul 28, 2023 at 20:40
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In Denmark, the issue of Muslim immigration became a major political topic in the early 2000s, when the far-right Danish People's Party began to gain influence. The party's leader, Pia Kjærsgaard, was known for her anti-Muslim rhetoric and her calls for stricter immigration policies.

In Sweden, the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment can be traced back to the 2015 refugee crisis. Sweden took in more refugees per capita than any other EU country, and the influx of immigrants led to a backlash from some Swedes who believed that the country was being overwhelmed by foreigners. The far-right Sweden Democrats, who have been accused of having neo-Nazi ties, gained significant support in the 2018 elections, and their anti-Muslim rhetoric has resonated with some voters.

The recent Quran burnings in Denmark and Sweden may have been triggered by the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, particularly the war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State. Some far-right groups in Europe see Islam as a threat to Western civilization and view the Quran as a symbol of that threat. Quran burnings are a way for these groups to express their anger and frustration with Islam and to attract media attention to their cause.

It's worth noting that not all Quran burnings in Europe are carried out by far-right groups. Some burnings have been carried out by extremists as a way to express their anger at perceived insults to Islam. However, in the context of the recent incidents in Denmark and Sweden, it's likely that the burnings were carried out by far-right groups as a deliberate provocation.

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    Fine overall, but you're leaving out people from the Middle East who have intimate knowledge of at least some branches of Islam and have valid reasons to be antagonistic to those. People like Hirsi Ali. It is wrong to blame the Muslim religion, as a whole, for the excesses of the Taliban, Iran's Ayatollahs or Somali clitoral mutilation, but the people directly involved have valid reasons to be critical of at least those interpretations of Islam. Do protests need to escalate to desecrations? Do bystanders need to approve? Perhaps not. But racism is still only a (big) part of the story. Jul 27, 2023 at 19:00
  • "The recent Quran burnings in Denmark and Sweden may have been triggered by the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, particularly the war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State." Even if this were the case, someone informed about what was going on in the Middle East would protest Egypt's embassy for this reason,
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 27, 2023 at 22:06
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In Denmark, Anti-Muslim sentiments in right wing politics date back to at least the 1970s. In the early 1970s, one stereotype was drunk less-than-intelligent lower class men at bars getting loud mouthed and spouting racist and anti-immigrant opinions and random violence against any blacker than snow-white man within arm/fist reach. Another stereotype was a new group of roaming racist youth known as the green-jackets, who allegedly would assault anyone not looking like a stereotypical ethnic Dane (which is incredibly close the Nazi idea of the Aryan white race). Economically, this period was characterized by a sudden downturn and massive rise in unemployment, combined with the continued presence of immigrants from Jugoslavia (any religion), Turkey (Islamic) and occasionally Spain (Christian) invited as "guest workers" to fill vacant jobs during the tail end of the 1960s economic boom. Because these attacks were aimed based mostly on actual skin color, it was equally dangerous to Italians and Jews.

This era cemented many Danish political stereotypes of what racism is, even when mostly targeting darker subgroups of the "white" race and religious minorities like Jews.

Meanwhile in other politics, a Right wing anti-tax provocateur lawyer named Mogens Glistrup founded a successful political party (The "Progress Party") on the heals of him provocatively proclaiming that he somehow had achieved a personal tax rate of 0% through tax loopholes. The PP was mostly about abolishing taxes and cutting public spending and assembled a menagerie of somewhat laughable lunatics, including a rural guy making penis jokes, and other such oddities.

By the 1990s, the PP was falling apart in chaos as Mogens G descended into senile ramblings about "Mohammedans" (<==== Here!), and a large group broke out to create a more disciplined right wing party (DPP) under the leadership of a former social worker/cleaner named Pia K, the new party took many of the elected politicians and votes of the old party and refocused the party line on anti-immigration and a promise to protect the elderly of Danish ethnicity. One key member moving to the new party was a young law graduate with the unfortunate last name Messerschmidt (like the WW2 German warplane) who had had a few episodes of being caught saying things that felt reminiscent of the much hated WW2 German occupation forces. This new party argued for decades to abolish the criminalization of racist provocations and (by extension), the rarely used rule that blasphemy against religious groups was also a crime, as both of those explicit exceptions from free speech had from time to time been used against party members and supporters.

By the early 2000s, DPP was becoming a major political force, with so many seats they could form part of the majority behind ordinary right-of-center governments that were focused on economic libertarianism and traditional conservatism. This allowed them to politically pressure such governments to follow DPP ideas about immigration and other causes, while also causing politicians seeking broad appeal left of center (like the traditional workers party) to also take up some DPP causes to gain back swing votes. This influence was highly unpopular with the loyal bases of both conservative and workers parties, but left them few places to swing to, thus making it advantageous for professional politicians to give the DPP voter segment (known derisively as "the inner schweinhund") their pound of flesh.

During this period, an atheist author of an anti-Islam book complained that the fear of insulting Islam meant that no illustrator was willing to create artwork depicting the prophet Muhammad in a neutral way. This in turn caused the somewhat naive cultural editor of a large right wing newspaper (that had a bad reputation during WW2) to create a challenge for newspaper caricaturists to submit drawings of the Prophet for a spread in the paper. Although a few of the cartoons skirted the issue in various ways (such as drawing a schoolboy by the same name writing an insult against the newspaper or replacing the prophets face by a symbolic crescent moon), this spread was picked up by a group of fanatical imams to gather anger from the wider Muslim world, partially by inserting in the stack of Muhammad drawings a photo of a French comedian making a pig face during a pork festival). The Neo-liberal government that existed at the mercy of the DPP had little political choice but to support the newspaper against the angry attacks on their freedom of speech, ruining a century of good economic relations with the Arab world (who had long used Danish suppliers of architecture, infrastructure, cheese etc.) and elevating the crude caricaturists and their drawings to the status of national martyrs. Another fallout was that the Danish chapter of the free speech organization PEN was split into two, the right wing "printing freedom society 2004" and the chapter of international PEN.

One fallout from this incident was that it became police practice to only use the blasphemy criminal charge against physical acts such as defacing temples or burning holy books. This in turn created a rare political opportunity for the DPP and the Atheist Communists to jointly (and for opposite motives) pass a criminal code amendment to actually decriminalize blasphemy (but not racism). From there, Quran burning became a favored right wing provocation, especially by another political lawyer, the actually brain damaged Rasmus Paludan, who currently has a rather descriptive English Wikipedia article about him.

However as the DPP reached its height of power in the late 2010s, with Pia K now the speaker of parliament, Pia K's impending retirement in favor of Messerchmidt resulted in a new split of the party to create 2 new offshoot parties, both being formed around a somewhat younger female (alleged) racist provocateur, leaving only a small rump of the DPP in parliament, with new the new right wing parties even more intolerant of Islam.

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