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Widespread protests after burning of Quran in Sweden

The burning of the Quran provides a relatively easy opportunity for the Taliban to mobilise public opinion and protest – and position themselves as defenders of the Islamic faith


30 Jan 2023

On January 21, a far-right Danish politician, Rasmus Paludan, burnt a Quran outside Turkey’s Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, triggering a wave of protests in Muslim countries around the world, including Iraq, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Protests in Afghanistan initially centred around the city of Khost, with other demonstrations spreading across the country. 

Paludan has publicised several burnings of the Quran, which have triggered similar protests in the past. Days after the incident in Sweden, Edwin Wagensveld, Dutch leader of the far-right Pegida movement, tore pages from a copy of the Quran and stomped on them in the Netherlands, while Paludan again burned copies of the Muslim holy book in Denmark on January 27. 

Protests begin in Khost 

As pro-Taliban social media users reacted to the incident in Sweden, one Twitter user asked followers if they should hold a protest in response to the burning of the Quran. The tweet received 65 replies, with some questioning what effect the protest would have, and other pro-Taliban Twitter users warning that the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP) could cause harm. Protests started to occur soon after this tweet.

Protests began in Khost on January 24, with protestors holding up makeshift Swedish flags and photographs of the Quran on sheets of paper. Images of the protests continued to be shared throughout the day, confirming the location. 

AW verified another protest on January 24 in the southern town of Qalat, Zabul province, where a large group of protesters carried Taliban flags and Qurans. 

On January 26, large protests were verified in Tirin Kut, Uruzgan province, Asadabad, Kunar province, and Sharan, Paktika province. In addition, several hundred participants waved Taliban flags and flyers in Kandahar, where protesters burned the Swedish flag.

Protests occurred in the majority of Afghan provinces on January 27, and by January 30, AW verified protests in 25 of the country’s 34 provinces and recorded claims in an additional seven provinces. Kapisa and Nuristan were the only two provinces where AW did not record or verify footage of protests. 

An interactive version of the map can be found here.

On January 29, the Taliban’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan stated, "the IEA-MoFA condemns in the strongest terms the attempted desecration of the Holy Quran by burning a copy. Insulting the true religion and beliefs of nearly two billion Muslims under the name of freedom of expression is in no circumstances justifiable.” 

The Taliban then issued a follow-up addressing the burning of a Quran in Denmark, which took place on January 27. Hafiz Zia Ahmend, Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign affairs, stated, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly condemns the attempt by extremists to desecrate the Quran and burn a copy of it in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark.”  

This is the first instance of widely reported protests against the burning of the Quran since the Taliban took over. The Taliban were seen to lead these protests, with many people waving the group’s flags. Differences can be drawn from other protests which have taken place in the country, such as those in favour of protecting women’s rights, which have in some cases been met with violence and intimidation. Women appeared to be absent from the protests surrounding the desecration of the Quran, and there were a large number of Taliban flags and often vehicles accompanying the protests. 

The burning of the Quran provides a relatively easy opportunity for the Taliban to mobilise public opinion and protest – and position themselves as defenders of the Islamic faith. In contrast to many previous Taliban-approved protests, the topic does not require any strong alignment with more extreme or conservative elements of Taliban ideology.  

In Afghanistan, previous protests against the burning of the Quran have resulted in deaths and injuries, with some turning into riots. Notable instances happened in February 2012, when 42 people died after American soldiers burnt the Quran at Bagram Air Base. Further protests occurred in 2010, after a Pastor in Florida burned a Quran, broadcasting it online

ISKP threaten ‘non-believers’ 

On January 24, the ISKP-affiliated media foundation Al-Azaim released a warning statement on its Telegram channel in response to the burning of the Quran in Sweden and the Netherlands. The one-page statement in Pashto blamed the Taliban for not taking serious action and only condemning the incident via a tweet, protecting ‘infidels’ and meeting with European Union representatives in Kabul. The statement claimed “The same Swedish and Netherlands are financially supporting the Taliban through their NGOs, and those countries’ NGOs, which are actually intelligence offices, are freely operating in Afghanistan.”

ISKP warned “all world infidels” that the Islamic State group will not use words to conduct demonstrations and condemn the insult of the Quran but will take revenge with violence, stating, The infidels of the entire world are our targets in revenge for this barbaric and blasphemous act (insult of Quran). If we find them in any corner of the world, we will kill them like dogs, Insha’Allah.

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