When Turkish protesters tried to burn a Swedish flag outside the country’s consulate in Istanbul it was supposed to be a riposte to the Danish extremist Rasmus Paludan burning a Koran outside Turkey’s embassy in Stockholm, but it provoked barely more than an eye-roll in Sweden.
It’s not that Swedes don’t like their flag. Indeed, for many outsiders they can seem a bit obsessed; they fly them from their summer houses, they’ll pop flags on the buses the moment a member of the royal family has a name day, more old-fashioned Swedes will hang little flags on their Christmas trees and plonk a mini flagpole on the breakfast table if someone in the family has a birthday. Even Sweden’s National Day, June 6th, was originally established to honour the blue and yellow banner.
But any consternation in Stockholm about the burning of the flag was down to what Turkish anger would mean for Sweden’s Nato application. The actual insult of the burning flag itself? Meh – it’s merely a symbol, a cheap bit of fabric.
It’s not just the flag. There’s no national symbol that thugs in other countries could use to rile the Swedes. A dismembered dalahäst? If you paid for the dalahäst, go wild. Astrid Lindgren is probably one of the few people Swedes could be said to venerate, but even desecrating Pippi Longstocking books would raise little more than a tut. And even the most committed Lutherans tend to think there are more important things to worry about than avenging symbolic insults.
How do you insult a country where nothing is holy, the country that according to the World Values Survey stands out as the ultimate bastion of secular-rational values, where religious observance has declined to some of the lowest levels in the western world? Where anything goes as long as nobody gets physically hurt, nobody harms the environment and nobody loses any money?
Which brings us to Rasmus Paludan. A right-wing extremist and serial provocateur, his schtick is to travel around Europe burning the Islamic holy book. He is widely disliked and disapproved of in Sweden, where the government even tried to prevent him entering the country, until it turned out that he was a Swedish, as well as a Danish citizen.
Many Swedes see the burning of the Koran and they see an act of provocation and hatred against Muslims. But they also see an act of self-expression that is protected by law. And they see a lone man burning a mere sheaf of paper. While we know from experience that some people in Muslim countries will be offended, it’s hard for many people here to really, viscerally understand why.
And this, perhaps, makes Sweden vulnerable. While Swedish politicians have come out and condemned Paludan in unusually frank terms, they have failed to prevent a foreign-based extremist with minuscule Swedish support from potentially sabotaging Sweden’s long-term military alliances – and now there are anti-Swedish demonstrations in a number of Muslim countries. While Paludan may be acting entirely independently, it’s sobering to think that if Putin wanted to harm Sweden (and he does), all he needs is some pliable extremists at one end and a prickly dictator at the other.
Sweden wants – and needs – to protect its tradition of free speech. But it also needs to protect its national security at a time of acute danger. There are no easy answers, but squaring this circle will require the kind of realpolitik that doesn’t always come easy to a Swedish political class that is always most comfortable on the moral high ground. Internalising the fact that Swedish values are not universally shared would be a good place to start.