January 25, 2023 | Flash Brief

Erdogan Seizes on Quran Burning as New Pretext to Block Sweden’s NATO Accession

January 25, 2023 | Flash Brief

Erdogan Seizes on Quran Burning as New Pretext to Block Sweden’s NATO Accession

Latest Developments

A far-right activist, Rasmus Paludan, burned a Quran in front of the Turkish Embassy in Sweden last weekend after authorities granted him permission. The event, which Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu condemned as a “hate crime,” threatens to derail Sweden’s NATO membership bid.

Turkey and Hungary are the last two NATO members holding out on ratification of Sweden and Finland’s applications to join NATO. Turkey declared it is nominally in favor of their joining but previously cited security concerns which it says must be addressed before it approves their accession. Specifically, Ankara wants Stockholm to terminate its alleged support of the separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which the European Union (EU) and the United States recognize as a terrorist organization.

Expert Analysis

“This is largely a manufactured crisis. President Erdogan has been looking for a way to avoid ratifying the enlargement of NATO until after the Turkish presidential election on May 14. This incident — especially Sweden’s defense of Quran burning as free speech — may have given him the perfect excuse. Until the election is over, Mr. Erdogan is likely to refer to this incident in a way that will make him appear to Turkish voters as a defender of Islam, standing boldly in the face of European Islamophobia.” — Sinan Ciddi, FDD Non-Resident Senior Fellow on Turkey

No NATO Enlargement for Now?

Turkey accuses Sweden of providing sanctuary to numerous PKK operatives and has demanded the extradition of over 100 of alleged members currently residing in Sweden. Although Swedish authorities have deported several individuals of interest to Turkey, the Swedish government stated that it cannot further comply with Ankara’s extradition demands without compromising its democratic principles, specifically the need for due process prior to any further extraditions. This has led Ankara to hold back on ratifying the Scandinavian additions to NATO.

The Quran burning incident has given Ankara further pretext to delay NATO’s enlargement. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “It is clear that those who allowed such vileness to take place in front of our embassy can no longer expect any charity from us regarding their NATO membership application.” Although the Swedish prime minister condemned the Quran burning as “deeply disrespectful,” he said, “Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of democracy,” so the act was legal. In contrast, Turkey perceives the act to be a hate crime, therefore asserting it deserves no legal protection. Citing this perceived failure, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar cancelled the scheduled visit of his Swedish counterpart to Ankara this week. Meanwhile, the mainstream Turkish press, which Erdogan’s allies effectively control, presented the president as an uncompromising defender of Islam, which is likely to bolster his public image as he stands for re-election on May 14.

Further Reading

Finland and Sweden in NATO are Strategic assets, not Liabilities,” by Bradley Bowman, Ryan Brobst, Jack Sullivan, and John Hardie

Enough is Enough: What Blinken Should Tell Turkey’s Cavusoglu,” by Sinan Ciddi


International Organizations Military and Political Power Turkey U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy