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The Quran-burning protester in Sweden and his complex past

July 21, 2023

After Salwan Momika made international headlines with a protest in Stockholm where he burned a Quran, his fellow Iraqis have helped expose his political background. His motivations are now being questioned.

Protest in Lahore, Pakistan, against the Quran burning
The burning of the Quran in Stockholm prompted protests throughout the Muslim world, as here in PakistanImage: ARIF ALI/AFPGetty Images

His actions may have sparked a serious diplomatic spat between Iraq and Sweden this week, and they also look likely to cause ongoing demonstrations across the Muslim world. But it is hard to know just how seriously to take the motivations of the Iraqi asylum seeker who has publicly burned pages from Islam's holy book, the Quran, in Stockholm.

Salwan Momika, 37, had planned another protest for this week where he said he would burn the Quran. 

This came less than a month after the Iraqi, who has been in Sweden since 2018, had already caused an international outcry in late June when he burned pages from the book outside a Stockholm mosque during the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Momika, who describes himself on Facebook as a "thinker and writer … a free atheist," said his protest indicated his feelings about the religion.

This week, Momika didn't manage to burn any pages from the Quran. On Thursday, standing outside the Iraqi Embassy in Stockholm, the lone demonstrator kicked the book and also stamped on an Iraqi flag. Momika also wiped his feet on pictures of leading Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and of Iran's religious leader, Ali Khamenei.

The event caused upset in Iraq before it even happened. There, followers loyal to the cleric al-Sadr broke into the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad early on Thursday morning and lit a fire on the grounds.

The Iraqi prime minister then ordered the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador, withdrew Iraq's charge d'affaires from Sweden and suspended the operations permit of Swedish telecommunications company, Ericsson, in Iraq.

Protesters climbing a fence
The expected Quran burning caused protesters to storm the Swedish Embassy in BaghdadImage: AHMED SAAD/REUTERS

Why were reactions so extreme?

It's extremely hot in Iraq right now, the Iraqi government is headed by a religious political party and it is also the beginning of the second holiest month on the Islamic calendar, Iraqi political consultant Jassim Mohamad said as he explained the intensity of reactions from Iraq.

In particular the latter "means that the mood of the Iraqi street tends towards religious extremism," Mohamad, director of the European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, based in the western German city of Bonn, told DW.

"It could also be an opportunity for the cleric al-Sadr's group to reappear on the political scene and position itself in opposition to the Iraqi government," he added. Al-Sadr officially exited Iraqi politics in 2022, but the religious leader still has the ability to call large numbers of demonstrators onto the street.

"The Iraqi government's hard-line decision to deport the Swedish ambassador likely came in order to contain al-Sadr's group, as well as for its own ideological and religious reasons," Mohamad concluded.

Protester's militant background

On social media, some Iraqis questioned the wisdom of the Iraqi government's reactionary move.

Others publicly questioned Momika's motives and his background.

A France24 investigation looked more closely into social media posts proffered by Iraqis that claimed to identify Momika, who is originally from the northern Iraqi state of Ninawa and of Christian denomination. 

Momika arrived in Sweden in 2018, and Swedish authorities confirmed that he was granted a three-year residency permit in 2021.

France24 researchers verified a number of videos showing Momika in military clothing, associating with members of other militias. They concluded he was the same man who founded a political party in Iraq, the Syriac Democratic Union Party, in 2014, as well as an associated militia.

Momika's own militia, which, like many others at the time, was originally set up to fight the extremist "Islamic State" (IS) group, appears to later have been linked with a motley variety of other groups in Iraq. That includes militias with Shiite Muslim affiliations that support, and are supported by, neighboring Iran, as well as Kurdish militias that espouse a more atheist and communist agenda. Iraqi journalists wrote that Momika left the country because of a power struggle with the leader of another Christian militia. 

Momika is also thought to have supported the cleric al-Sadar at one stage, and then to have also agreed with anti-government protests in Iraq. A town council member told the publication The New Arab that Momika had committed fraud in his hometown.   

The Iraqi protester has apparently also been in trouble with Swedish authorities after threatening his flatmate with a knife, the Swedish newspaper Expressen reported in an interview with Momika in June. 

All this led France24 investigators to imply that Momika's motivations for his recent protests might be questionable. Other earlier reports in Arabic have voiced similar suspicions.

"[Momika] is active on many social media sites, especially TikTok and Facebook," the France24 report noted. "However, all of his accounts were created after he had refugee status in Sweden ... Momika has posted dozens of videos online, often with majority-Muslim country names in Arabic as hashtags. This makes it seem likely that he was trying to stir up as much publicity as possible for his Quran burning." 

Women with black headcarves holding up a copy of the Quaran
Iran has also seen protestsImage: Vahid Salemi/AP/picture alliance

Dubious motivations? 

Momika's Swedish residency permit expires in April 2024, they noted, and most recently he was denied permanent residency, an essential step towards gaining citizenship.

Momika says he is a member of Sweden's far-right nationalist party, the Sweden Democrats. He previously told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet that he joined the party in 2022 and would like to run for government for them.

The political party's public relations department told DW that it could not confirm or deny Momika's membership "for privacy and confidentiality reasons."

"Regarding this person's alleged wishes to run for office for our party, we are not aware of any such application so far and do not intend to speculate on what such a scenario would entail," the Sweden Democrats' press office wrote in an emailed statement.

Momika himself did not respond to DW's request for an interview.

What happens to Momika next?

Iraq itself wants Momika extradited from Sweden so he can face trial under Iraqi law. Unlike Sweden, Iraq has a blasphemy law, where punishment can be up to three years in prison. 

In late June, the Swedish police filed a preliminary charges against Momika for incitement to hatred and for violating a fire ban. While Sweden doesn't have a blasphemy law and even allows demonstrations that involve the desecration of religious items, the country's hate speech law prohibits incitement against groups of people based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

The fact that Momika burned the Quran outside a mosque can be understood as incitement against a group, Swedish police said. Whether the case goes further will depend on whether local prosecutors agree.

One thing is for certain, though: Now he is infamous around the world, Momika's life will hardly be easy. He has already been threatened with death and insulted many times. Previously, Momika lived in a small town outside of Stockholm, but most of his recent videos have shown him in what appears to be a hotel room. On Friday, local media reported he was being kept safe "in a secret place" and that he regretted nothing.

In a video posted yesterday by an Iraqi politician, a shopkeeper in Sweden refused to serve the Quran-burning protester.

"I am a Christian from Iraq and I do not accept your immoral behavior," the shopkeeper yelled at Momika. "You have transgressed against Islam and harmed everyone, including us Christians."

Momika appears to have made the video himself.

Edited by: Timothy Jones

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.