In a recent provocative act against Ankara, Rasmus Paludan, a controversial Danish far-right politician, was allowed to burn a copy of the Quran in front of the Turkish Embassy in the Swedish capital.
Sweden, a Scandinavian country known for its spruce trees, breathtaking views and a long history of avoiding sides in international conflicts, is now desperately seeking to become part of NATO as it confronts Russia’s war in Ukraine.
But while Stockholm desperately tries to get behind the wall of the US-led North American Treaty Organization alliance’s military protection, it has made its case difficult by picking up a fight with Türkiye.
As one of the early members of NATO, Türkiye has the veto right to decide if another country can join the alliance.
NATO's second-largest army comes from Türkiye. Sweden’s soft approach towards the Marxist-Leninist terrorist group PKK, which regularly takes out rallies in Stockholm, has been a point of major concern for Türkiye.
PKK, which has been behind a murderous campaign in Türkiye for decades, is recognised as a terror group by Ankara, the EU and US.
After Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022 and the threat of the conflict spilling over the borders of other European states became real, Sweden stepped up its bid to join NATO.
In June, Sweden signed a memorandum of understanding with Türkiye, promising that it will not allow PKK, its offshoots and supporters to operate their organisation.
Despite the official promises made at the highest level, Sweden has only adopted cosmetic steps to contain PKK, which is accused of raising funds in Europe to finance its terror campaign in Türkiye in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.
In what was a blatant case of provocation, on January 11, a pro-PKK group took out an anti-Turkish rally and hanged an effigy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Stockholm.
Then last week, Swedish authorities allowed Danish far-right politician, Rasmus Polidan, to burn a copy of the Quran in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, sparking condemnations from across the Muslim world.
“The relations between Stockholm and Ankara are gravely threatened by the decision of some officials in Stockholm to allow burning of the Quran by a citizen of Denmark, a notorious anti-Islamic provocateur,” says Matthew Bryza, a former top US diplomat.
The Quran burning has escalated tensions between Sweden and Türkiye as the latter summoned the former’s ambassador to Ankara to account why a Danish citizen was allowed to burn a sacred book in front of a NATO member’s embassy in Stockholm. There have also been protests against Sweden across Türkiye and other Muslim countries following Paludan’s burning of the Quran.
Sweden justifies allowing actions such as desecrating the Quran as part of freedom of speech, but anti-racism activists see the act as a pure provocation. In April, Paludan’s burning of a copy of the Quran even led to demonstrations across Sweden.
“It’s hard to understand how burning a sacred book regardless of the religion can be considered free speech,” Bryza tells TRT World. “Freedom of speech is one thing, but insulting religion and burning a sacred book is simply not acceptable under any doctrine of free speech,” he says.
“In any case, this incident gravely threatens Sweden’s NATO membership,” he says.
Is Sweden responsible enough for NATO?
The recent Quran burning incident has also shown that Sweden might not be both politically ready to enter the world’s biggest military alliance at the moment.
“They do allow the escalating tensions with (Türkiye) because they are utterly useless and not mentally equipped to manage or confront difficult things that involve tension and conflict,” says Gregory Simons, an associate professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University, referring to the Scandinavian country’s political orientation.
“They do want to get into NATO, for example, but are not prepared to do what is necessary to achieve that because it is likely to involve tensions and conflict. I see this so very often at all different levels in Swedish society,” Simons tells TRT World, adding politicians in the Nordic state lack professionalism and diplomatic maturity to be part of NATO.
Türkiye fought alongside the US forces in the Korean War, which partly secured the Turkish entry into NATO in 1952, showing Turkish political and military competence, according to analysts. Sweden, unlike Türkiye, appears to believe that requesting entry to NATO will be a walk in the park.
“Swedes and Sweden tend to be a little self-entitled and believe that they should just get NATO membership as they have been a good vassal state of the US, plus this value and normative catchphrase and slogan nonsense they espouse,” says Simons.
“They seem themselves as being inherently good and superior morally, in contrast with how they would talk about Türkiye, behind her back. To use a New Zealand expression, they could not organise a booze party in a brewery,” says the Swedish professor, who is originally a New Zealander.