There are some reasons to suspect that Russian intelligence had something to do with an incident reinforcing Turkish opposition to Sweden’s NATO bid.
by Massimo Introvigne
On June 28, one Salwan Momika, who came from Iraq to Sweden five years ago, burned a copy of the Qur’an outside a mosque in Stockholm. To be even more offensive, he did his act on the day marking the start of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, wiped his shoes with pages he had torn out of the Holy Book, and put bacon (i.e., pork, impure to Muslims) inside the Qur’an.
Momika did not do anything illegal under Swedish law. After three months of legal battles, his Qur’an-burning one-man demonstration had been authorized and followed two court decisions. Momika said he is a militant atheist, and his aim was to denounce Islam and religion in general as evil.
Sweden is trying to join NATO and needs the consensus of all the alliance members, including Turkey, which has several problems with the Scandinavian country. Clearly, burning a Qur’an was the equivalent of waving a red flag before a bull. Turkey immediately reacted, as did other Islamic countries, and the NATO bid of Sweden now seems to be in jeopardy again.
My first reaction to the incident was that it was a deplorable manifestation of idiocy. It is unfortunately possible that terrorist acts will follow against innocent Swedish citizens. Terrorists will be inexcusable, and we will all condemn them, but the prevention of terrorism also includes avoiding unnecessary provocations. Movies, performances, and works of art often criticize religions in a very strong way and raise delicate legal and political questions. However, what Momika did had no redeeming value and was not an artistic performance, just an insult.
Religious minorities should not be immune from criticism, but should be protected from offenses and insults, just as religious majorities.
Vladimir Putin was visiting on the same day, June 28, the predominantly Muslim Dagestan Autonomous Republic of the Russian Federation, where he was gifted a copy of the Qur’an. That gave him the opportunity to state that in Russia, unlike in Western countries, burning the Qur’an is prohibited. In fact, it is arguably prohibited in many democratic countries of the West too, something Putin omitted to mention or discuss.
That Putin was visiting a Muslim part of Russia and receiving a Qur’an a few hours after the Stockholm incident might have been just a coincidence. Or maybe not. The question is whether Momika is just a lonely idiot or has been supported by forces interested in torpedoing Sweden’s NATO bid. What country is most interested in not having Sweden in the NATO is not difficult to guess.
Is this just speculation? Not entirely. This is the second time a Qur’an is publicly burned in Stockholm after Sweden’s NATO bid and the country’s problems with Turkey. The first time, on January 21, 2023, the burner was Rasmus Paludan, a dual Swedish-Danish national and a right-wing extremist. He burned the Qur’an near the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm.
One week later, Paludan confessed that he did what he did because “some Swedes would like me to burn a Qur’an in front of the Turkish embassy.” One such Swede was identified in Chang Frick, a far-right journalist that had worked for Russian media and has well-known ties with Russia. The title of “The Guardian” aptly summarized what happened: “Burning of Qur’an in Stockholm Funded by Journalist with Kremlin Ties.”
What about Salwan Momika? Of course, when he was asked, he denied that he was motivated by Sweden’s NATO bid or a sympathy for Russia. However, among Momika’s most vocal supporters were far-right groups that are also pro-Putin, and one wonders who paid the expenses for his legal battles and organized his PR. “Il Foglio,” a respected Italian newspaper, was among the media that reported on June 29 about voices from the intelligence community suspecting beyond Momika the hand of “Russian agents, whose aim is preventing the expansion of NATO.” The Paludan precedent also offers an indication.
Putin condemned the burning of the Qur’an in Stockholm and used it for his own propaganda. Did he also organize the incident? We may never know for sure, but asking the question belongs to the realm of politics and the well-known modus operandi of Russian intelligence agencies, not of conspiracy theories.