Beneficiaries of Populist Rights’ Quran Burning Tour in Europe

This article was written by Dr Mustafa Demir, an Associate Fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Surrey.

2023 in Europe started a bit tumultuous with anti-Islam and Muslim demonstrations of the radical far right movements in European capitals. Far-right politician Rasmus Paludan1, the leader of the Danish far-right political party Stram Kurs (Hard Line), has started a campaign of burning copies of Koran, the holy book of Islam. He has embarked upon his campaign first by burning a copy in front of Turkish embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. Then he replicated the very same act in the following week on Friday, the day of congregation and Jummah prayer for the Muslims, in Copenhagen again before the Turkish embassy in Denmark. He has also ‘inspired’ like-minded far-right leader, Edwin Wagensveld in Netherlands. Wagensyeld, leader of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West), tore pages from a Quran and stomped on them near the parliament in The Hague on Sunday, 21st of January. In this short piece, leaving aside if these incidents constitute hate speech or freedom of speech/expression, I will briefly explore the possible implications of this incident for Europe and its Muslim minority, which refers to around 30 million people in Europe through the lens of populism with respect to the parties benefitting from it.

These incidents of burning copies of the Quran could ‘inspire’ and mobilise far right activists portraying Muslims in Europe as a threat. Thus, these incidents will first benefit populist parties and discourses. They may provoke Muslim minorities in European capitals to respond with similar protests or reactions. That would further ‘contribute’ to populist efforts of framing Muslims as ‘the enemy other’ of  European values. Not only populists in Europe but also radical Islamists in Europe, Islamist populists in competitive authoritarian Muslim majority countries would/could benefit from these events to appeal to people with religious sensitivities. Such incidents would also serve transnational populist leaders’ goal of manufacturing a transnational audience and posing themselves as their guardian/protector. If Muslim minorities’ concerns are not addressed within the political frame of the EU, and by the states where they live , they may fall prey to radical groups or foreign Islamist populist regimes.  For example, the leader of the ultra–Nationalist Action Party, governing ally of the Erdogan regime, reacting to the Quran burning incident in Sweden in front of Turkish diplomatic mission said,  “I remind the Swedish government that Allah is one, his army is Turkish.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also blasted the Swedish government for allowing such an incident to take place in their country and made a connection with  this incident and  Stockholm’s application for NATO membership. Last year, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland abandoned their non-aligned status and applied to join NATO defence pact. However, referring to the Quran burning incident Erdogan stressed that under these circumstances, Stockholm should not expect Ankara to ratify Sweden’s NATO accession documents. This position would empower Erdogan’s position to portray himself as the guardian of Islam and ‘champion of Muslims’ ahead of critical Presidential elections. Observers of Turkish politics agree that this incident and Sweden’s application to Join NATO will be instrumentalised by Erdogan in the election run-up to ‘energise his hardline and Islamist bases.’

Though not very visible and vocal, there has been another beneficiary of this incident, Russian President Putin. Sweden’s and Finland’s application to join NATO have caused reactions by Russia. However, ignoring Russia’s warnings, Finland and Sweden have gone ahead with their application to join NATO. This political row between Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, and Sweden is benefitting Russia in this regard.  The Guardian has reported that the first incident of the recent Quran burnings carried out by anti-Islam provocateur Paludan in Stockholm was sponsored by  a journalist with ties to Kremlin. Against this background, the argument that Russia is projecting its ‘sharp power’ through right-wing populist parties should not be considered groundless. Over the last couple of years many credible analysts and sources reported on the relationship between populist right wing movements in Europe and Kremlin. The question I have is if these anti-Islam and Muslim demonstrations are sponsored by the Putin regime. Considering the benefits for the Putin regime, this would not be a mere manipulation. The chosen spot for these incidents, in front of Turkey’s diplomatic missions in European countries applying for NATO membership is quite symbolic.

1Paludan holds both Danish and Swedish citizenship. He is not only a politician but also a criminal indicted by Danish and Swedish governments many times.