Islamophobic protests on western soil are bad for foreign relations, efforts for peace and allyship

When a far-right leader publicly burned a copy of the Quran in Sweden, it forced the Nordic country into a precarious position. The protests forced Sweden to choose between maintaining its free speech policy or appeasing Muslim-majority countries. “Based on Sweden’s failure to denounce the hate speech symbol — it’s clear they decided on the former choice.

Europe’s far-right movements are not just pushing their respective countries to isolation but are actively opening them to political and military threats. Western countries’ refusal to condemn the January Islamophobic protests on their soil weakens their relations with Muslim-majority countries. 

A central part of bigotry is arrogance. Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric in Europe operates on perceived European and Christian superiority. Many anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant protests promote the idea that Muslims and non-Europeans are less civilized and have nothing to offer to the international community. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth, especially in Sweden’s case. 

Though Sweden and Finland have historically maintained isolationist policies that prevented them from joining military alliances, Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine prompted them to change their approach. Finland shares a border with Russia, and the Baltic Sea is the only boundary between Sweden and Russia.

Though Russia has made no territorial claims on Finnish and Swedish land like it has on Ukraine, Finland and Sweden are attempting to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. However, one of the major requirements for an aspirant nation to join NATO is unanimous approval from all current members. Every NATO member except Turkey and Hungary has already ratified the two countries’ entries into the military alliance.

One of Sweden and Finland’s primary obstacles to joining NATO is Turkey, whose government demands that the Nordic countries eliminate potential threats to Turkish sovereignty to gain their approval. Turkey suspects Sweden and Finland harbor members of the Kurdish Workers Party, a banned group that took up arms against governments ruling over predominantly Kurdish regions in 1984.

Turkey believes the Kurdish Workers Party, also known as the PKK, is responsible for an attempted coup in 2016. Sweden, however, has been slow to hold members of the PKK accountable. 

In a time of international tension, European countries can’t afford to make any more enemies than they already have. Turkish opposition to Sweden and Finland’s entry to NATO effectively means that Sweden’s national security is in the hands of a Muslim-majority country, and that’s enough to make far-right leaders in the Nordic countries livid.

When Danish far-right political leader Rasmus Paludan burned a copy of the Quran in front of the Turkish Embassy in Sweden with the consent of the Swedish government, it sent a hostile message not just to Turkey but to every Muslim-majority country. Condemnations from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Kuwait, Pakistan and Qatar were swift.

In response, Turkish authorities in Ankara say they indefinitely postponed a meeting with Sweden and Finland regarding admission into NATO. 

Burning holy books of any religion cross a rigid boundary and is an unethical form of protest. Still, the Swedish constitution includes freedom of speech and freedom of the press, so managing protests come with limitations. Of course, suppression is unconstitutional, but at the very least the Swedish government shouldn’t provide security to far-right leaders that invite threats to Sweden’s sovereignty.

If Sweden intends to join NATO, Swedish citizens must face the hard truth that bigotry and isolationism cannot function in a diverse alliance. Catering to Turkey’s demands to persecute potential members of a Kurdish militant group is already controversial enough, considering the legacy of Kurdish oppression at the hands of the Turkish government. Condemning Islamophobia is Sweden’s most straightforward task, especially since Sweden refused to persecute Kurds who burned an effigy of Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. 

Russian officials threatened that, should Sweden and Finland join NATO and allow the military alliance to build anti-Russian infrastructure, Moscow would respond similarly. Instead, Russia offered the two countries a chance to ally themselves with Russia, an offer that Sweden and Finland have refuted by continuing their attempts to join NATO. In doing so, the two countries pushed themselves into an uncertain political situation, creating more enemies without properly securing allies. Sweden can only solve the uneasy political atmosphere it embroiled itself in by appeasing Turkey. Sweden and Finland must prioritize self-preservation, even if it means abandoning their pride.

Featured Illustration by Jazmine Garcia

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