Stockholm, Sweden – Salwan Momika strutted into view behind rows of police officers outside the picturesque Stockholm Central Mosque, waving two Swedish flags as the national anthem blasted over a speaker system.
With white AirPods in his ears and a cigarette hanging nonchalantly from his mouth, he then desecrated the Quran repeatedly on Wednesday by tearing it up and lighting it on fire.
Momika, an Iraqi refugee seeking to ban the Quran in Sweden, also laid a strip of bacon on the holy book and began stamping on it with his foot. Another unidentified man with him spoke to the crowd through a megaphone.
It was a scene intended to shock and antagonise the Muslim community celebrating the holiday of Eid al-Adha. Instead, the display was largely mocked, dismissed, or ignored by about 200 people gathered outside.
‘I feel bad for him, not for us’
Muslim community members handed out chocolates, chit-chatting with the police as Momika spoke in Arabic through a megaphone.
A few people hurled isolated insults at Momika outside the mosque, which is perched on a hill in a trendy, bustling district in the Swedish capital, especially when he attempted to light the Quran ablaze with his cigarette.
Some ridiculing comments drew laughter from the crowd. “Speak Swedish”, some shouted, mocking Momika for waving a Swedish flag but seemingly unable to speak the language.
A group of teenage boys swore repeatedly at the two men who were hemmed in behind a police cordon. One boy then turned to a frowning, towering police officer. “All good? the boy asked him. “Just hot”, the officer responded, smiling.
Avsan Mezori, 32, a financial manager in the crowd, said, “I feel bad for him [Momika], not for us”. He added that, as a Muslim, “what I have in me, he can’t take; I don’t want to give him the attention”.
Husam El Gomati, a political activist originally from Libya, dismissed the act as a “trick” intended to provoke a reaction that could be used to “portray Muslims as violent”.
He said Momika chose the Muslim holiday to “plant hate”, but added he was proud of the community for remaining calm and not reacting.
There were some individuals who further intended to goad the crowd. One woman held a cross in the air as she criticised some onlookers in rambling monologues.
Ramona Sinko, an Orthodox Romanian, berated her in front of the crowd, labelling her a “disgrace to her religion”.
“Can’t we all just live side by side, like my friend Khaled here?” Sinko said, pulling close a grinning man from the crowd. “We are not just friends. We are like brother and sister.”
Police detained a man as he approached the security cordon with three rocks held in his hands behind his back.
Officers quickly swooped in, tackled him to the ground, and carried him away.
Representatives of the mosque were disappointed by the police decision to grant permission for the protest during the Muslim holiday, Stockholm Central Mosque Director and Imam Mahmoud Khalfi said on Wednesday.
Police later announced they were investigating one of the men for “agitation against an ethnic group”.
Sweden’s NATO bid in jeopardy?
Turkey has held up Sweden’s application for NATO membership, accusing the Nordic nation of harbouring people it considers “terrorists” and demanding their extradition.
Earlier in the year Rasmus Paludan, a far-right politician, burned a Quran in Stockholm near the Turkish embassy, exacerbating tensions between the two nations.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Sweden’s leaders at the time: “If you do not show respect to the religious beliefs of the Republic of Turkey or Muslims, you will not receive any support for NATO from us.”
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson did not comment on whether the latest stunt would further damage relations with Turkey and threaten NATO membership.
“It’s legal but not appropriate,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday, adding it was up to the police to make decisions on Quran burnings.
Sweden’s police have rejected several recent applications for anti-Quran demonstrations, but its courts overruled the decisions, saying they infringed on the right to freedom of speech.
Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan criticised Wednesday’s incident, saying it was unacceptable to allow anti-Islam protests in the name of freedom of expression. “Turning a blind eye to such atrocious acts is to be complicit,” he said on Twitter.
🕌 Desecration of The Holy Qur’an in Sweden
🇹🇷 Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan condemns burnings of copy of Islam’s holy book, saying ”it is unacceptable to allow these actions under the pretext of freedom of expression” https://t.co/nml0oxIi2e pic.twitter.com/TPuqfImWTS
— Anadolu English (@anadoluagency) June 28, 2023
Sweden’s NATO membership application – submitted a year ago along with that of Finland as the Russian war against Ukraine raged – is being blocked by alliance members Turkey and Hungary. New members must be approved unanimously by all existing NATO members.
The US Department of State rejected the burning of the Quran while calling on Turkey to approve Sweden’s NATO bid.
“The burning of religious texts is disrespectful and hurtful, and what might be legal is certainly not necessarily appropriate,” spokesperson Vedant Patel said.
“Broadly, we continue to encourage Hungary and Turkey to ratify the accession protocol of Sweden without delay.”
Ali Harb in Washington, DC contributed to this report.