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Sweden, Quran burnings, NATO and why it’s a big deal

Danish-Swedish right-wing politician Rasmus Paludan burns a translation of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, Sweden in a demonstration on January 21, 2023. (Photo: Tobias Hellsten/Wikimedia Commons)

In the last year or so, Sweden’s attempts to join NATO and the decision by Turkey to block it has been in the news a lot, followed by various official burnings of holy scriptures in Sweden. Mostly Quran books, but also Torah scrolls. What is exactly going on up in that little frozen corner of Europe, and why does it matter?

It does matter because of Sweden’s strategic position versus Russia, Sweden’s involvement in the Russia- Ukraine War and because of many centuries of Sweden's history with Russia and Turkey.

And since I’m a history nerd, I claim that the Quran burnings in Sweden today are all because of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. It’s fun to always find a way to blame the Americans. But let’s start from the beginning.

Sweden is a country surrounded by the Baltic Sea on three sides, and their relative disconnection from the rest of Europe has served them well throughout history. As of now, Sweden has been able to navigate their way out of wars since 1814, for some 200 years.

So what made Sweden abandon 200 years of independence from military alliances and ask to join NATO, and why is it a big deal? And why is everything Napoleon’s fault?

Historically, Russia has always been a big threat to Sweden. Wars between Sweden and Russia go back to Swedish Catholic crusades against the Orthodox Republic of Novgorod in the 12th century, which were really more about controlling trade in the Baltic Sea.

Later in history, many of the wars fought in the 16th and 17th centuries were about control of the Baltic Sea.

Then, we have the 18th-century Nordic wars and the 19th-century Napoleonic wars. Sweden successfully stayed out of the 20th century World Wars and the Cold War but often helped Russia’s enemies if they could. Today, Sweden wants to join NATO, because they fear that Russia will want to… You've got it: Control the Baltic Sea.

When the year 1700 rolled around, Sweden was an empire. The absolute monarch of Sweden ruled all of what is today Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and parts of northern Germany. That’s when the great Nordic War erupted involving Russia, Sweden, the Polish-Lithuanian Empire and Denmark. Without going into too much detail, the Swedish King Charles XII and his army spent decades fighting in this war, and after failing to invade Russia in the winter, the Swedish army was almost totally eradicated in Poltava (in modern Ukraine), and Charles went to seek assistance from the Ottoman Empire against Russia.

Which is very similar to what Sweden is doing now.

With the Swedish king and parts of his army in Turkey (actually, they were in what is today Moldova), Peter the Great of Russia took the opportunity to conquer a large chunk of Swedish land around Estonia and Finland. Among these was the Swedish fortress Nyenskans, where he built himself a new capital he called St. Petersburg.

Finally, he had the Baltic Sea port he had always wanted. This is generally seen as the end of the Swedish empire. Charles XII didn’t want to admit defeat, so after the Sultan kicked him out, he returned to Sweden and mobilized a new army to go and conquer Norway instead. But then he was shot, and the war ended.

One hundred years later, Sweden was sucked into the Napoleonic wars and had to face Russia again. This mess went on from 1809 to 1814 and is the last Swedish war ever (so far) and the root cause of what we are seeing today. Napoleon’s alliances are so messy, with some countries changing sides all the time, but the gist of it all is this: After some wars, Napoleon and Russia reached an agreement to divide Europe into two spheres of influence. Napoleon gave Russia free rein to conquer Sweden, while he focused on Spain. In 1809, the Russians came and it was brutal. This time they conquered a third of Sweden – the entire piece of land that we today call Finland – creating Sweden’s modern borders for the first time ever.

And then something weird happened: The Swedish army rebelled and deposed the king and instead brought in a French officer to become the new king of Sweden. A French officer would know how to conquer Finland back, right? He would forge an alliance with his buddy Napoleon and fight Russia, right? Why and how this happened is a long story, but this guy, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, is the ancestor of the current Swedish royal family, and he shaped everything that happened next – and it was because of the Louisiana Purchase.

This is because about six years earlier, Napoleon had offered Bernadotte to become the French ambassador to the United States. Bernadotte accepted and was getting ready to leave when he suddenly heard about the Louisiana Purchase. Enraged that Napoleon had made this deal without consulting him, Bernadotte refused to go, making him available for the Swedish throne. Had the Louisiana Purchase not happened, Scandinavian history would have developed in a very different direction. So, that’s why I blame everything on the Americans.

Bernadotte did not live up to the Swedish expectations. They wanted revenge; they wanted the Finnish third of their country back. Bernadotte had no such sentimental attachment to Finland. He forged peace with Russia, gave up all claims on Finland, and joined the anti-Napoleon coalition in the 1813 Battle of Leipzig where Napoleon was defeated. The Swedish guys who brought him must have missed the fact that he and Napoleon were pretty bitter rivals. Of all the Napoleon-related royalties in Europe, Bernadotte was the only one who still kept his throne after Waterloo.

Denmark, which had allied itself with Napoleon, was forced to give up Norway. When the Norwegians refused to accept the new Swedish rule, Bernadotte invaded them by force in 1814. That was the last war Sweden ever fought, to this day.

This is really where we get the modern borders of the Nordic countries, because almost a century later, Norway gained peaceful independence in 1905, and Finland gained their not-so-peaceful independence from Russia in 1917. So, if you live anywhere in the Louisiana Purchase area, thanks for making this happen.

Sweden would soon learn that losing Finland was a blessing in disguise. Finland became a buffer zone against Russia. Finland was a lot more involved in both world wars, while Sweden was able to remain neutral as the world burned around them. In 1939, as Russia tried to reconquer Finland, Sweden stayed away, albeit allowing Swedish citizens to volunteer for the Finnish army, which many did.

Throughout the Cold War, Sweden and Finland pretended to be neutral, while secretly cooperating with NATO on many levels. You might think that Sweden’s socialist regime that came to power in the 1930s would make them more Soviet-friendly, but no. The fear of the Russian threat and the love of democracy were more important. Their proximity to Russia was invaluable to the NATO alliance, but they didn’t dare to openly take a stand like Iceland, Denmark and Norway did. As a small country without a military alliance, they played a game of balancing between empires by developing a defense industry that exported weapons, often to both sides of a conflict, making sure that no side had an interest in forcing them to pick a side. Even if the Swedish government had wanted to, joining NATO in the 60s or 70s would have been impossible with the pacifist hippie movement on the rise. They cooperated silently with the free and democratic countries while hoping and praying that the Soviets wouldn’t invade, knowing full well that if it happened, they would be first.

When the Soviets fell, an era of hope started, and there were even a few joint military exercises between Sweden and Russia. These hopes were crushed a few decades later by Putin.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were the ex-Soviet states that most quickly became closer to Europe. Today, they are part of both the European Union and NATO. In 2022, Sweden and Finland noticed how the Baltic countries, unlike Ukraine, were spared from Russian aggression. They realized that being a part of a military alliance has some benefits.

There is an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea called Gotland that belongs to Sweden. It has a huge strategic value. Between this island and the Swedish mainland, there is a small sliver of international waters. In this little corridor, Russian warplanes have been flying through every now and then to establish a presence and threaten Sweden. They have openly warned Sweden and Finland not to provoke them and not to join NATO – which is exactly why they decided to do so.

Because being independent means the freedom to choose whichever alliance you want.

The moment they let Putin dictate which alliances they can and can’t join, they have de facto given up their independence. Those were the voices raised in Sweden and Finland after the Ukraine invasion, and the public support to join NATO went from 40% to 80% within months. Sweden officially applied to join NATO together with Finland in 2022.

For NATO, this was great news. It meant that the Baltic Sea would be controlled from all sides by NATO territory, except for the small Russian Kaliningrad enclave. It meant that NATO would be enriched with the Swedish and Finnish extremely well-trained and highly capable air forces and navies, and their world-class expertise in arctic warfare.

Enter Turkey.

Within NATO, each and every country’s parliament must confirm the acceptance of each and every new member. Turkey has the largest army of all the NATO allies, except for the United States. As the only NATO ally in the Middle East, they are seen as a key partner. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was very well aware of this and used it to his benefit by refusing to accept Sweden or Finland into NATO, in essence holding them hostages until he could get what he wanted.

This also sparked a debate in Sweden. Should we join NATO at all costs, or should we refuse to bow down to this type of bullying? Should we run one quasi-dictator’s errands just to protect ourselves against another one? The Swedish leadership had their mind set on NATO, but now they had to deal with Kurds with Swedish citizenship who hated Erdoğan, pacifist activists and people from the anti-NATO and anti-Muslim camps demanding that Sweden stay out of NATO.

Noting that the Swedish freedom of expression is extremely far-reaching, some anti-Muslim atheist pacifist activists burned the Quran publicly. A group of Kurdish activists illegally hung a doll of Erdoğan in a mock execution. It was meant to disrupt the process, and it had the desired effect. Erdoğan was enraged and confirmed Finland into NATO (where these types of demonstrations are illegal) and kept Sweden out. The Swedish government was enraged as well, declaring these acts sabotage against the Swedish interests.

For the past year or so, Sweden has been in this most vulnerable position; not a part of NATO, but still openly trying to become one, and therefore a legitimate target of Putin. Most analysts believe that Putin stores nuclear weapons both in Kaliningrad and on the Kola peninsula, thereby having Scandinavia surrounded by nuclear weapons. These Quran-burning activities have also enraged the Muslim world, and the Swedish embassy in Iraq was attacked by an angry mob.

Sweden has abandoned 200 years of, at least perceived, neutrality and freedom from alliances, only to now become a legitimate target of both Muslim terrorism and Russian aggression. The Swedish embassy in Iraq was even stormed and had to be evacuated because of these Quran burnings. There are now talks about limiting the right to do these types of provocative demonstrations, but that would take a constitutional amendment and is not something that can be changed quickly.

The people who burn these Qurans are mostly atheist refugees from the Middle East who resent the Quran’s influence on lawmakers and do not wish to see Sweden succumb to Erdogan’s blackmail. Some are right-wing nationalists. Very few are Christians. But that didn’t stop Muslim countries from spreading disinformation about Sweden, publicly burning Swedish flags, and attacking local Middle Eastern Christian churches in “retaliation,” as if they had anything to do with it. A lot of this disinformation seems to come from Russian hackers. Chechen leader, Kadyrov, who is both Russian and Muslim, encouraged all Muslims to fight against “Satan’s servants” who blaspheme the Quran. On Aug. 17, the Swedish secret police raised the official terror threat level from 3 to 4 out of 5, as Sweden has gone from being a legitimate to a prioritized target.

Do you remember how angry we all got when we saw the headline that someone wanted to burn a Torah scroll publicly in front of the Israeli embassy in Stockholm? That was a public relations ploy, arranged as a reaction against the Quran burnings. And he didn’t actually burn anything, he just asked for permission to do it “to prove a point” that I think most people missed. Jokes have gone around in Sweden now about how being provocative in front of embassies is the new thing. “I will eat a pizza with pineapple in front of the Italian embassy” or “I will drink an American wine in front of the French embassy.”

In July, at the latest NATO summit in Lithuania, Erdoğan finally agreed to submit Sweden’s request to join NATO to the Turkish parliament – in October. But now he says he doesn’t know “how long the parliament will discuss the matter” and that it depends on “if the attacks against our holy places continue.” Why is he postponing this so much and what is he hoping to gain from it?

A number of things. First of all, many Western countries, including Sweden, have openly supported the YPG Kurds fighting ISIS in Syria, and are generally positive about an eventual Kurdish independence. Being forced to stand by Turkey in its fight against the Kurdish PKK terrorism will make that a lot harder. NATO has agreed to set up an anti-terrorism unit within its organization, and Sweden has made changes to its laws, now making it illegal to be a member of a terror group. Most of these things are positive, but one can wonder how far Erdoğan will try to milk it. One might also wonder about his insistence on better counter-terrorism efforts when he, the next day, meets with Hamas leaders to broker an agreement between them and the Palestinian Authority.

But this seems to be the role Turkey wants to play now; a large regional leader that hosts negotiations between countries. They cooperated quite well with Israel’s Mossad Intelligence against Iranian spies who tried to attack Israeli tourists, but they have also increased cooperation with Iran. They are a part of NATO and contribute to its enlargement, but they have active relations with Russia and agreements with both them and Ukraine about the Black Sea.

Furthermore, it looks like Turkey has used this leverage to get Biden to sell him the fighter jets he wants, and they have asked Sweden to actively support Turkey’s efforts to join the EU. In Sweden’s wish to join NATO, Erdoğan recognized an opportunity to milk his demands from NATO and the Western world, and so far the Western world is following it.

Will a strong Turkey make the world better or worse? Will it change the Middle East for the better or for worse? Only time will tell.

Back in 1700, the Swedish king was eventually thrown out of Turkey, as the Ottoman Sultan decided to ignore Sweden’s requests and broker a peace deal with Russia instead. This time, let’s pray the sultan is a bit more reasonable.

Tuvia is a Jewish history nerd who lives in Jerusalem and believes in Jesus. He writes articles and stories about Jewish and Christian history. His website is

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