Fanning the flames

Man burns bacon-stuffed Quran at Stockholm mosque protest

Iraqi refugee to Sweden torches holy book to express opposition to the text, highlight freedom of speech

Salwan Momika holds up a Quran before setting some pages on fire in a protest outside a mosque in Stockholm on June 28, 2023, during the Eid al-Adha holiday. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP)
Salwan Momika holds up a Quran before setting some pages on fire in a protest outside a mosque in Stockholm on June 28, 2023, during the Eid al-Adha holiday. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP)

STOCKHOLM (AFP) — A man set fire to pages of the Quran outside Stockholm’s main mosque Wednesday, with Swedish police, who had granted a permit for the protest, saying he was being investigated for “agitation against an ethnic group.”

The action was also slammed by Turkey, which is holding up Sweden’s pending NATO bid.

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan condemned it as “despicable.”

“It is unacceptable to allow these anti-Islamic actions under the pretext of freedom of expression,” Fidan said on Twitter. “Turning a blind eye to such atrocious acts is to be complicit.”

Turkey is blocking the country’s NATO bid due to what it perceives as Stockholm’s failure to crack down on Kurdish groups it considers “terrorists,” and took particular offense to another Quran burning outside its Stockholm embassy in January.

A meeting between the countries’ top diplomats is scheduled for July 6 at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, with NATO counterparts pushing for Turkey to grant the green light to Sweden by the time a summit is held in Lithuania on July 11-12.

In its written decision granting a permit for the protest, Stockholm police said the security risks associated with the burning “were not of a nature that could justify, under current laws, a decision to reject the request.”

Salwan Momika, 37, who fled from Iraq to Sweden several years ago, had asked police for permission to burn the Muslim holy book “to express my opinion about the Quran.”

Ahead of the protest, Momika told news agency TT he also wanted to highlight the importance of freedom of speech.

“This is democracy. It is in danger if they tell us we can’t do this,” Momika said.

Under a heavy police presence and with around a dozen opponents shouting at him in Arabic, Momika, dressed in beige trousers and a shirt, addressed the crowd of several dozen through a megaphone.

He stomped on the Quran, put strips of bacon in it, lit a few pages on fire before slamming it shut, and kicked it like a soccer ball, while waving Swedish flags, AFP correspondents at the scene reported.

Police had cordoned off an area in a park next to the mosque separating Momika and a co-protester from the crowd.

In the afternoon, police said in a statement that the protest had not caused “disturbances to order,” but added an investigation had been opened regarding “agitation against an ethnic group” since the man had chosen to burn the Quran so close to a mosque.

Police added he was also investigated for violating a temporary ban on lighting fires — in place due to a heatwave.

Noa Omran, a 32-year-old artist from Stockholm, called the protest “absolutely insane.”

“It’s just hatred masquerading in the name of democracy and freedom which it isn’t,” the woman, who said her mother was from a Muslim background, told AFP at the scene.

The police authorization for the protest came two weeks after a Swedish appeals court rejected the police’s decision to deny permits for two demonstrations in Stockholm which were to include Quran burnings.

Police had at the time cited security concerns, following the January protest, which led to weeks of demonstrations and calls for a boycott of Swedish goods.

Similar acts have in the past sparked violent protests and outrage across the Muslim world.

Police, which had granted a permit for the January protest, argued it had made Sweden “a higher priority target for attacks” and then banned two subsequent requests for protests involving Quran burnings — one by Momika and one by an organization.

The appeals court in mid-June ruled that police were wrong to ban those, saying the security concerns cited by police were not sufficient to ban the events.

Momika had said he would seek to burn the Quran again after his previous request was blocked.

“I want to protest in front of the large mosque in Stockholm, and I want to express my opinion about the Quran… I will tear up the Quran and burn it,” Momika wrote in the protest application to police, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.

Speaking to the newspaper Aftonbladet in April, Momika said his intention was not to sabotage the Swedish NATO bid and had considered waiting to stage his protest until after Sweden had joined the alliance.

“I don’t want to harm this country that received me and preserved my dignity,” Momika told the newspaper.

Politicians in the Nordic country have criticized Quran burnings but have also adamantly defended the right to freedom of expression.

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