Playing to the radicals

As Sweden grapples with the diplomatic fallout of a series of Koran burnings, radicals on all sides are rubbing their hands and exploiting the moment.
As Sweden grapples with the diplomatic fallout of a series of Koran burnings, radicals on all sides are rubbing their hands and exploiting the moment.

As Sweden grapples with the diplomatic fallout of a series of Koran burnings, radicals on all sides are rubbing their hands and exploiting the moment. Birgit Svensson travelled from Baghdad to Stockholm to get the full picture

By Birgit Svensson

Koran burnings are currently happening with increasing frequency, primarily in Sweden. A copy of the Muslims' holy book was again set alight on 14 August 2023. And once more in front of the parliament building in Stockholm.

Previously, we've seen pages of the Koran burning outside the Turkish embassy, a mosque, the Iranian embassy and on the Hotorget, the Swedish capital’s central square. But copies of the Koran have also recently been burned in the Danish capital Copenhagen.

These events have sparked outrage across the Islamic world. The Swedish and Danish embassies in Iraq were stormed and their national flags torched. The protests reached a dramatic climax on 20 July with an arson attack on the Swedish embassy and the expulsion of the ambassador.

There has also been a severe backlash against the Koran burnings in Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), with a membership of 57 nations, has issued strong condemnation.

Protest poster against Swedish Foreign Minister Billstrom in Baghdad (image: Ameer Al-Mohammedawi/dpa/picture alliance)
Größte Krise der schwedischen Außenpolitik: Laut Schwedens Ministerpräsident Ulf Kristersson haben die Koranverbrennungen die schwerste diplomatische Krise ausgelöst, die das Land jemals erleben musste. Der Sicherheitsdienst Säpo hat die höchste Terrorwarnstufe ausgerufen und Großbritannien warnt seine Bürger vor Reisen nach Schweden.  Auf dem Bild ist ein Protestplakat gegen den schwedischen Außenminister Billström in Bagdad zu sehen.

Two men responsible for the crisis

Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson says this is now the most serious diplomatic crisis facing his country. The security service Sapo says Sweden is now a priority target for Islamist terrorists. Britain has warned its citizens against travelling to Sweden.

Two men from Iraq bear chief responsibility for this crisis. Both are Christian. Salwan Momika and Salwan Najem have already carried out five burnings in Stockholm, declared as demonstrations against Islam. They have been spreading their message through the media, first and foremost via social media.

Salwan Momika is now world famous. Some say he is an outright Islamophobe. Others say he suffered trauma as a Christian in Iraq, enduring persecution first at the hands of the extremist Sunnis of al-Qaida, then by IS and finally, the no less violent Shia militias.

In an interview with German public broadcaster ARD, he said he would not stop until Sweden bans the Koran. But why are these two men being allowed to cause turmoil on a global scale?

Why are the Swedish authorities permitting the Koran to be repeatedly desecrated, thereby offending devout Muslims? And who stands to benefit from these actions?

Prime Minister-designate Ulf Kristersson (right) with Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Akesson (image: Jonas Ekströmer/TT/picture alliance)
Auch in Schweden profitieren die Radikalen: Als der 37-jährige Iraker Salwan Momika 2018 nach Schweden kam, schloss er sich den Schwedendemokraten an, einer ultrarechten Partei, vergleichbar mit der AFD in Deutschland. Begrenzung der Einwanderung, Hetze gegen Ausländer, schnelle Abschiebungen sind die Themen der Partei. Bei den Reichstagswahlen in 2022 erhielten die Schwedendemokraten 20,5 Prozent der Wählerstimmen und sind seitdem das Zünglein an der Waage der rechtskonservativen Regierung von Premier Ulf Kristersson von der Moderaten Sammlungspartei.

In Baghdad, the impression is that one person has just been waiting for a chance to muscle his way back into the political limelight: Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a man known for causing a stir. Most recently when his parliamentary bloc failed to form a coalition government despite its election victory in October 2021.

Angrily pulling his deputies out of the assembly, he called on supporters to take to the streets in protest and barely averted a civil war with other political forces by announcing his withdrawal from politics. That was precisely one year ago.

Now he's casting himself as the "avenger of the Muslims" by calling on his supporters to storm the Swedish embassy and defend the Koran. The violent protests in Baghdad were very clearly orchestrated by the cleric known for his radicalism. His message is: "Look, I’m still here and I can still mobilise the masses". A wink to his political opponents, who should continue to reckon with his presence.

The Iraqi government's ban on Swedish companies has now been lifted: they are deemed too important to the country's chain of supplies. The foreign policy adviser to the Iraqi prime minister, Farhad Alaadin, cited first and foremost the Swedish company Ericsson as crucial to Iraq's communication networks. As he posted on Facebook, the boycott of Swedish businesses could turn out to be too high a price.

Sweden's radicals benefit too

The situation is more complicated in Sweden. But here too, it’s the radicals who are benefitting from the actions of Salwan Momika and his co-protestor. When the 37-year-old Iraqi came to Sweden in 2018 he joined the Sweden Democrats, an ultra-right party comparable to Germany's AfD.


The party wants greater limits on migration and is seen as generally anti-foreigner and in favour of fast-track deportations. In the 2022 parliamentary elections, the Sweden Democrats party captured 20.5 percent of the vote and now holds the balance of power in the conservative governing coalition led by Prime Minister Kristersson from the Moderate party.

When the Swedish embassy in Baghdad went up in flames, the chairman of the Justice Committee at the parliamentary assembly in Stockholm, Sweden Democrat member Richard Jomshof, called for a dialogue on the democratisation of the Muslim world. A dialogue about Islam, "this anti-democratic, violent and misogynistic religion founded by the warlord, mass murderer, slave trader and robber Muhammad".

Instead of de-escalating the situation, Jomshof's comments simply poured more oil onto the fire. A decree to restrict freedom of expression in Sweden currently being pursued by the government leader’s ‘moderate party’ in a bid to avoid any further Koran burnings is being opposed by the Sweden Democrats.

"Swedish freedom of expression is important to all of us," says Haider Ibrahim, chairman of the Islamic Association of Shias in Sweden. “But what does burning a Koran have to do with freedom of expression? Such an act doesn't hit Muslims the hardest, it tarnishes Sweden's reputation abroad and undermines its credibility."

When Koran burner Momika recently went into a shop near his home to buy a soda, the owner refused to sell him anything.

Protest against Koran burnings in Pakistan (image: Raja Imran/Pacific Press/picture-alliance)
Protests in the Islamic world: In Pakistan (pictured here), Muslims peacefully express their outrage at the Koran burnings in Sweden. There were also protests against the Islamophobic actions in Iran, Turkey and Lebanon. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), with a membership of 57 nations, has also issued strong condemnation

Earning money with TikTok posts

"I'm Iraqi like you," he said. "A Christian like you, but that's something I won't tolerate." Sweden made them both feel welcome and the country does not deserve any of this, the shop owner continued. It is interesting to note that Momika, who is Assyrian – meaning he is descended from the first Christians in the Middle East – posted the video of the shop altercation online himself, claiming he had been threatened.

All of this goes to show that Koran burnings are playing into the hands of the radicals and Momika is fully aware of this. In the ARD interview, the full transcript of which has been made available to, he states that he is no longer a member of the Sweden Democrats; yet, when asked about his supporters, he gives a telling smile. He says he receives money for his daily Tik-Tok posts.

A bullet-proof vest was recently left outside his front door. He is currently unable to remain at home and has moved into a hotel, he reports. The radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has threatened to kill him and put a bounty on his head, he continues. It is indeed true that al-Sadr has requested Momika's extradition from Sweden to Iraq.

The Swedish government now confirmed it will reassess Momika's residency status. His three-year temporary deportation suspension runs out in April next year. His co-protestor Salwan Najem has been in Sweden since the 1990s and is a Swedish citizen.

Birgit Svensson

© 2023

Translated from the German by Nina Coon