Swedish police bent the law when they banned a Quran-burning demonstration earlier this month, according to documents obtained by the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. The police decision, reached after consulting the Swedish security service SÄPO, is being appealed and is unlikely to stand in Swedish courts. This comes as Sweden faces a conflict between its liberal principles of free speech and rule of law and Turkish ultimatums to approve the Swedish application for NATO membership.
On Wednesday, February 8th, Swedish police decided at the last minute to ban a Quran-burning rally on the grounds that such rallies pose a threat to “Swedish society at large.” In reply to an email from the organisers—the Apallarkerna cultural association—the police rejected the application for permission.
The same day, the police’s legal department drew up an internal document justifying the decision. The police said the book-burning rallies endanger “Sweden, Swedish interests abroad, and Swedes abroad.” According to Dagens Nyheter, the document states that the ban only applies to the Quran.
No other religious texts are covered by police protection.
Speaking in an interview, Chris Makoundoul, head of the Apallarkerna cultural association, said he and his organisation are opposed to NATO membership. Unlike Paludan, the anti-migration hardliner who carried out the initial Quran burning in January, Makoundoul does not hold any particular animus towards Islam. Instead, he is using the act of burning the Quran to provoke a Turkish veto of Sweden’s NATO application.
In doing this, Makoundoul is intentionally exploiting a serious dilemma for Sweden—that Turkish demands contravene the liberal values which Sweden seeks to uphold through its legal rulings and its rule of law.
Speaking to Dagens Nyheter, professor of public law Henrik Wenander of Lund University said that the police decision and reasoning will not hold up in court. Legal precedent dictates that police may ban a demonstration if they believe that there may be a threat to safety at the demonstration itself. “Here there was a broader argument and that is unusual. The law does not allow for these abstract risks,” he said, “[the threat] has to be on the site or in its immediate vicinity.”
But protecting the holy book of Islam may not be enough to appease Turkey, whose demands extend beyond the Quran burnings. Prior to Paludan’s January protest, Erdoğan was already blocking the Swedish application by demanding Kurdish organisations be banned, and the extradition of Kurdish activists on the grounds that they were connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the EU as well as the U.S.
The extradition requests also included Turkish anti-Erdoğan activists who the Turkish government claims are connected with the 2016 attempt at a coup d’état. The most prominent extradition target was journalist Bülent Keneş. However, the Swedish government was unable to comply with the requests as the decision of the Swedish Supreme Court blocked any such extradition. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said he could not meet these demands, as extradition would violate the country’s separation of powers.
Echoing Kristersson’s statements, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billström said that there will be no compromise on Sweden’s freedom of speech.
Sweden Democrats MP Richard Jomshof said that if Turkey cannot tolerate “freedom of opinion and expression,” people should “burn a hundred more [Qurans] then.” Jomshof commented on Twitter: “A citizen being denied the exercise of his democratic freedoms and rights is serious. We cannot under any circumstances let Islamists and terrorists set the limits of our freedom of expression.”
Meanwhile, facing a contentious election, Erdoğan plays to domestic Turkish anger by expressing outrage at the burning of the holy book. As such the Swedish-Turkish NATO impasse is unlikely to end anytime soon.