Why does burning a Koran start a fire in politics?
Sweden and Finland are currently applying to join NATO. But what is the role of religions in their ratification processes that have been extended?
Roots of the case
After the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Sweden and Finland decided to apply to join NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In February 2023, all the other NATO countries have ratified their membership except Turkey and Hungary. Turkey has retarded the ratification for several months, demanding that Sweden and Finland return people it considered as ’terrorists’ back to Turkey. By terrorists, Turkey means members of PKK, The Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which promotes Kurdish self-government in Turkey. Furthermore, Turkey has required that Sweden and Finland provide ‘security guarantees’ that they will change their terrorism policies in the future. Turkey has also demanded that Sweden and Finland stop complying with the European Union’s arms embargoes on it. The latest turn on the series of delays, however, concerns religion.
Smoke before the fire
The relationship between Turkey and Sweden deteriorated in January 2023, when protesters hung a doll representing the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, by its feet in Stockholm. As a countermeasure, Turkey launched a criminal investigation into the incident, summoned the Swedish ambassador, and canceled the visit of the speaker of the Swedish Parliament, Andreas Norlén, to Ankara.  According to the Foreign Minister of Sweden, Tobias Billström, the situation between Turkey and Sweden was ”the most serious since the Second World War.” However, even worse was yet to come.
Burning the Koran
On January 21st, Rasmus Paludan, a Danish far-right politician, burned a Koran in a protest nearby the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. In his speech, Paludan claimed that there is no freedom of speech in Islam. In Sweden, unlike Finland, such behaviour is allowed in principle because no law prohibits burning holy books. In Finland, violation of religious peace is punishable. Devlet Bahceli, a representative of the Turkish MHP party, argued that the NATO membership of Sweden would not be accepted by Turkey because of the acts of Paludan and their allowance by the Swedish police.
On January 24th, Turkey officially announced that it would cancel the tripartite negotiations on Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership. In the Swedish government, the message was taken rather seriously and Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson condemned the burning of the Koran. However, the incident already started a fire in Turkey and international politics. Hundreds of people gathered in Ankara and Istanbul to protest the burning of the Koran, and to burn the Swedish flag. This was followed in many Muslim countries, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, where hundreds of protesters gathered to show their support to Turkey and conviction to Sweden. In Sweden, a Swedish-Egyptian man asked the police for permission to burn the Christians’ holy book, the Bible, at the center of Stockholm, and the Jews’ holy book, the Torah, in front of the Israeli embassy. He claimed that by his deeds he wanted to show his anger and ”to spark a conversation.” In Finland, too, protesters were planning to burn the Koran as part of a protest against joining NATO. However, they decided to withdraw after the police reminded them that in Finland, such behaviour is not legal.
Lutheran pastor and the doll of Erdoğan in Finland
The incidents in Sweden were soon followed by Finland. On February 6th, a demonstration for the release of Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, was held in the Oulu city center. In the demonstration, Árpád Kovács, pastor of the international work of the Oulu Cathedral Parish, spoke out against president Erdoğan. He said: ”Europe has recognised what the dictator Putin has done. It is time to also recognise what dictator Erdoğan is doing.” In the demonstration, a doll representing president Erdoğan was lifted into the air with a tag on its chest that said ’terrorist’.
The bishop takes a stance
The behavior of the Lutheran pastor, Árpád Kovács, did not go unnoticed in the Oulu diocese. Bishop Jukka Keskitalo rushed to comment that opinions of pastor Kovács are not representing the stance of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland and that the behaviour of Kovács is certainly not ”suitable for a pastor.” Bishop Keskitalo was especially sad that Kovács attacked Turkey right after the devastating earthquake in the country. He commented that the timing for demonstration was not discreet: instead of accusations, Turkey would have needed prayers on that day. The bishop also noted that an individual pastor cannot decide who is a terrorist and who is not, because such things belong to the European Union. In the EU, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party PKK is categorised as a terrorist organisation.
The role of religions in the NATO application processes of Sweden and Finland
The incidents of the past weeks in Sweden, Finland, Turkey, and some other Muslim countries address that religions are involved and intermingled with politics. In the case of the NATO applications of Sweden and Finland, burning the Koran ignited a chain of events that showed the relevance of how we treat religious artifacts and people of other faiths. It also showed that in international cooperation – such as NATO – we do need the virtue of respect. That certainly belongs to the interfaith dialogue too, the importance of which only deepens in the current times.
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