Sweden accuses Russia of discrediting it through Quran burnings

By Agencies July 27, 2023 5301

Sweden’s civil defense minister claimed his country is being the target of a “Russia-backed” disinformation campaign to discredit its image as a NATO candidate in the face of recent Quran burnings.

Sweden's bid to join NATO after Russia's invasion of Ukraine has put it in the international spotlight, while a number of demonstrations at which protesters have burned copies of the Muslim holy book have angered Muslims around the world.

"Sweden is the target of a disinformation campaign supported by state and state-like actors with the aim of damaging Swedish interests and... Swedish citizens," the minister, Carl-Oskar Bohlin, told reporters at a news conference.

"We can see how Russia-backed actors are amplifying incorrect statements such as that the Swedish state is behind the desecration of holy scriptures," he said.

"That is, naturally, completely false," Bohlin said, adding that such state actors tried to "create division and weaken Sweden's international standing."

There was no immediate reply from the Russian embassy in Stockholm to a request for comment about the minister's remarks.

Mikael Ostlund, a spokesman for Sweden's Psychological Defence Agency, told the press conference: "Russia is using these opportunities to promote its agenda in the media and the message there aims, of course, at splitting us in the West and at creating increased concern and division here in Sweden."

"Obviously, one such ambition from Russia's side is to be able to complicate our joining NATO."

In a statement earlier this month, Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said the desecration of holy texts was "offensive and disrespectful." "Expressions of racism, xenophobia and related intolerance have no place in Sweden or in Europe," he said.

Copies of the Quran have been burned at several demonstrations in Sweden and Denmark this summer, causing outrage among Muslims and prompting protesters to storm and vandalize the Swedish embassy in Baghdad.

Denmark and Sweden have said they deplore the burning of the Quran but cannot prevent it under rules protecting free speech.

Türkiye, which holds a veto over Swedish NATO membership, has condemned the protests and called on Stockholm to take action against the perpetrators.

Earlier on Wednesday, Sweden's security service, SAPO, warned that Sweden's security situation had worsened as a result of the recent controversy over freedom of speech.

"The image of Sweden has changed. We have gone from being seen as a tolerant country to being a land that is anti-Muslim - that's how we are seen... mainly the Muslim parts of the world," Susanna Trehorning, Deputy Head of the Counter-Terrorism and Counter-Subversion Unit at SAPO, told Swedish state broadcaster SVT.

Sweden's security-alert level has not been changed, however, and is currently at 3 on a scale of 5, indicating "heightened risk." Five is the highest level of threat.

Islamophobic actions carried out by small groups in Sweden and Denmark, in which Quran editions were burned, have recently led to angry protests in several Muslim countries.

Reactions were particularly strong in Iraq, whose government expelled the Swedish ambassador. Earlier, demonstrators in Baghdad broke into the Swedish embassy and set fire to it.

On Monday, the Swedish radio station SVT reported that a Quran burning announced for Saturday had been canceled by the person responsible. However, further actions were planned.

Sweden's reputation suffers due to Quran burnings
According to the secret service, Sweden's reputation suffered as a result of the actions in connection with disinformation campaigns that had already been going on for some time.

Instead of being a tolerant country, Sweden is now seen as hostile to Islam and Muslims, the statement said. This includes the perception that attacks on Muslims in Sweden are tolerated and Muslim children are "kidnapped" by social services, it said.

"As a whole, this may increase the threat posed by individuals in the violent Islamist environment.

According to the report, Swedish security services regularly deal with threatened attacks against Swedish citizens and Swedish interests abroad.