Why is Iran making commotion about the issue of the Quran burning in Sweden now when such incidents have been occurring since 2016? The answer lies in Iran’s endeavor to pressure Sweden into agreeing to a prisoner exchange, particularly one involving a prisoner closely linked to the Iranian president who has been implicated in the execution of numerous political prisoners.
On June 27, just hours after the Eid al-Adha prayer, tension and chaos enveloped the scene near the Stockholm Grand Mosque in the Swedish capital. Journalists gathered alongside numerous protesters, aiming to capture the unfolding events.
With a notable police presence, marked by stationed vehicles and white-and-blue tape delineating a boundary, a tanned-skinned man wearing sunglasses stood at a distance. Clad in a light blue shirt with neatly rolled-up sleeves, he held a megaphone in one hand and the Swedish flag in the other. In Iraqi-accented Arabic, his voice resonated as he hurled insults at Islam, the Quran, and the Prophet Muhammad. The climax came when he ignited the Quran using a lighter. This man is Salwan Momika, an enigmatic Iraqi militiaman.
The police promptly detained an Arab youth attempting to breach the iron fence separating Momika from the demonstrators. Shouting in a Palestinian accent, the young man proclaimed that silence on the Quran burning had invoked divine wrath, manifesting as earthquakes, hurricanes, and massacres.
Meanwhile, two Palestinian youths distributed chocolates among the crowd, engaging in conversations with both demonstrators and journalists. Speaking in Swedish, they expounded on the “tolerant principles of Islam.” One of the youths conveyed, “Though I feel anger, my faith guides me to turn away from ignorance.”
Aside from heated exchanges in various Arabic dialects between demonstrators and Momika, physical clashes were averted. The police remained vigilant, serving as a buffer between the opposing sides.
Momika: From PMF Militias to Sweden Democrats
Seeking permanent residency in Sweden, 37-year-old Momika aimed to burn the Quran in a country where deportation is prohibited if it jeopardizes the deportee’s life. Holding a three-year temporary residency permit since April 2021, he aligned himself with the far-right, populist, anti-immigrant nationalist party, the Sweden Democrats.
Party officials downplayed Momika’s membership, considering it a mere formality. However, it is worth noting that the party traces its origins to Swedish fascism and white nationalism, with its inaugural president having ties to the Neo-Nazi political party in Sweden known as the Nordic Realm Party.
Momika’s vehement focus on the Quran remains unwavering, as he sees the Quran as the “root of evil.” Interestingly enough, before his arrival in Sweden, he served as a combatant in the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militia, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Born into a Syriac Catholic family in northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plain, Momika led the Rouh Allah Issa Ibn Miriam (The Brigade of the Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary), a militia composed of Christian Assyrians affiliated with the PMF’s Imam Ali Brigades.
He also commanded the Hawks Syriacs Forces militia and led the Syriac Democratic Union Party in Iraq, described as “independent and representative of the Syriac-Aramean people in Iraq.” However, his tenure was curtailed due to a fallout with Rayan al-Kildani, the leader of the Christian Babylon Brigades which operated within the PMF. Notably, Al-Kildani and his militia faced accusations of grave human rights violations, resulting in US sanctions being placed on him since 2019.
Currently, Momika’s demonstrations in front of embassies, where he lights up Quran pages, continue to send shockwaves within and beyond Sweden’s borders.
The recent events have positioned Sweden as a potential target for terrorist attacks due to the Quran burning, as indicated by its intelligence services. The nation’s cherished democratic values and its image as a diverse and welcoming haven for those fleeing authoritarian regimes have been overshadowed by insidious rumors such as “Sweden burns the Quran,” “Sweden abducts Muslim children,” and “Sweden persecutes Muslims.”
This disturbing development was confirmed with the arrest of Anas and Ahmad Kiwan, aged 28 and 24 respectively, in Germany. They are accused of plotting terrorist attacks in Sweden as retribution for the Quran burning. Evidently, the burning incident has triggered repercussions, with individuals in Sweden receiving threatening messages promising retaliation against those responsible for the desecration of the holy book.
The threat of potential terrorist attacks in Sweden escalated after an incident involving Rasmus Paludan burning the Quran in front of Turkey’s embassy in Stockholm last January. Subsequently, a brazen attack on the Swedish consulate in Izmir, Turkey ensued this August, resulting in a seriously injured employee. Swedish media reports suggest that the attack stemmed from a delayed travel visa that would have granted the assailant entry into Sweden.
Following the extinguishing of the flames ignited by Salwan Momika’s Quran-burning act, demonstrations resonated in numerous Arab and Islamic countries. These nations released statements condemning the incident while awaiting Sweden’s response. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the act, upholding freedom of expression while acknowledging that it also “reflects racism and xenophobia.” Discussions about potential legislative changes in Sweden to prevent future Quran burnings have sparked domestic criticism, raising concerns that such measures could undermine freedom of expression.
Despite the majority of Swedish officials unequivocally condemning the Quran burning, they are bound by legal safeguards protecting freedom of expression, preventing them from imposing a ban.
In a previous instance, Momika had requested permission from Swedish police to burn the Quran in front of the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm, which the policy subsequently denied due to potential security implications. Ultimately, the judiciary granted permission for the act.
Momika’s actions are not isolated; he joins a list of Quran burners in Sweden. Notably, in 2016, Egyptian writer Omar Makram, aged 37, resorted to Quran burning to secure permanent residency. Moreover, since 2020, Danish-Swedish far-right figure Rasmus Paludan, aged 41, orchestrated Quran burnings across Sweden and various European countries. However, these incidents pale in comparison to the seismic impact of Iranian leader Hamid Nouri’s case.
Iran’s Anger and the Woven Carpet
In reality, Momika is a mere pawn in Iran’s grand scheme. His provocative act has become a pretext for Tehran’s sophisticated propaganda machinery, which initiated a well-coordinated campaign against Sweden, cleverly linking it to Israel.
The Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei directed his ire at Sweden, accusing it of “preparing for war on the Muslim world” due to its support of those responsible for the Quran burning. Khamenei’s remarks effectively amounted to a de facto declaration of war against Sweden. Iran went further, alleging that Momika was tied to the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, hinting that his residence permit in Sweden was secured through extensive Zionist intelligence operations.
Iran’s chorus of voices swiftly followed, echoing orchestrated reactions. Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, corroborated the association to the Mossad, amplifying Iran’s narrative. Subsequently, Iran declared its rejection of Sweden’s new ambassador. This move followed Iran’s delay in appointing its own ambassador to Stockholm.
The situation escalated when Iraq issued an arrest warrant for Momika, expelled the Swedish ambassador, and recalled its chargé d’affaires from Stockholm. In Baghdad, followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Iraqi Shiite Mahdi Army, set fire to the Swedish embassy, expressing vehement disapproval. In Sweden, the Imam Ali Islamic Center (IAIC), colloquially known as ‘Iran’s second embassy,’ orchestrated rallies in major cities. As the largest Shiite mosque in Scandinavia, the IAIC rotates imams from the Iranian city of Qom.
Iran has seemingly played all its cards in its attempt to exert influence over Sweden through the Quran burning issue. A carefully woven carpet of strategies has been laid out over the years, poised for a critical exchange: a prisoner swap involving Iran and Sweden. This tense situation between Tehran and Stockholm traces back to April 2016 when Iran detained Iranian-Swedish doctor Ahmad Reza Jalali, aged 51, subsequently sentencing him to death on charges including “corruption on earth,” espionage, and alleged collaboration with Israel—despite lacking concrete evidence.
Conversely, in November 2019, Swedish police apprehended Iranian official Hamid Nouri at Stockholm Airport. Nouri, formerly involved in Iranian prisons, was successfully lured to Sweden by the Iranian opposition. He later received a life sentence for his role in the 1988 executions that tragically claimed the lives of an estimated 2,500 to 30,000 Iranian political prisoners. Notably, the Swedish police were alerted in advance through a legal dossier provided by an Iranian-British lawyer, which predicted Nouri’s arrival in Sweden and further substantiated suspicions of his involvement in the executions.
The concerning aspect of Nouri’s case lies in his connection to the current Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi. In August 2016, an old recording released by Ahmad Montazeri, son of Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri, the former right-hand man of late Iranian Revolutionary Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, unveiled Raisi’s role in the 1988 executions. Raisi stands accused of being among the “death executioners” responsible for eliminating opponents, particularly the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
It is evident that Iran is strategically delaying Jalali’s death sentence, possibly to facilitate an exchange with Nouri. This strategy was discernible in May when Iran executed Iranian-Swedish dissident Habib Farajollah Chaab, aged 48, who was implicated in a 2018 attack on an Iranian military parade resulting in 25 deaths.
Iran implicated Sweden in every accusation against Chaab, a former leader of the separatist opposition group known as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz. Iran alleged that Chaab operated “under the protection of the intelligence services of Israel and Sweden,” engaging in attacks since 2005, as per Iranian claims.
Furthermore, Iran asserted that other group leaders resided in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden, alleging that the group received financial and logistical support from Saudi Arabia. Iran strategically enticed Chaab to Turkey, subsequently abducting and transporting him to Tehran. This occurred within a year of Nouri’s arrest in Sweden.
The potential for a deal is underscored by Masoud Setayeshi, spokesperson for the Iranian Judiciary, who stated that Nouri “will be released soon.” Around the same time, Swedish media outlets reported on a potential prisoner exchange between Sweden and Iran. This narrative was echoed by the hacking group “Revolution Until the Overthrow of the Regime,” which published a document obtained by hacking the Iranian presidential institution. This document hinted at the possibility of an exchange involving Jalali and Nouri, aligning with reports from Swedish media.
The likelihood of a swap gaining traction is considerable, especially following Iran’s successful retrieval of Assadollah Assadi in May. Assadi, an Iranian diplomat sentenced to prison for his role in plotting a bombing at a conference held by the Iranian opposition group, People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, in Paris in 2018, was ultimately released in exchange for a Belgian aid worker.
Swedish parliament member Alireza Akhondi, who is of Iranian descent, vehemently criticized the potential deal, labeling it a “grave mistake and a direct threat to all Swedish citizens.” Akhondi cautioned that such an arrangement would undermine the credibility of the Swedish legal system and would be perceived as a mockery of its integrity.
Iran’s Ultimate Objective
In an article penned in July, prominent French journalist Catherine Perez-Shakdam highlighted the West’s failure to grasp the intricate nature of the Iranian regime. Instead of comprehending its manipulative tactics, the West finds itself perpetually combating fires ignited by Iran’s proxies. Shakdam noted that Tehran’s clergy views Western values as an affront to its religious sensitivities.
Shakdam explained that Iran has adeptly exploited the foundational principles underpinning Western democratic societies, undermining and perverting institutions. Iran has exploited the freedom of assembly, skillfully organizing and supporting various groups. According to Shakdam, Iran’s objective is to weaken democratic societies from within, making them susceptible to divisive rhetoric and policies that erode the very foundations of their democracies.
Shakdam concluded, issuing a stark warning: “We are engaged in a battle for our survival. Losing is not an option, for it would mean surrendering the very essence of our existence – the freedom to think and act independently. To counter Iran’s subversive tactics requires a rethinking of our strategy, but more importantly a mapping out of the regime’s circles of influence, its finances, and methodology. Resolve will be needed… courage also.”