Swedes On Edge Of Culture Clash

Swedes on edge of culture clash

By Cajsa Collin
The Washington Times
November 12, 2007

In December of each year, violence disrupts the streets of Salem, a suburb of Stockholm, when hundreds of right-wing extremists and racist groups clash with counterdemonstrators, often leading to mass arrests.

The anti-immigrant groups' annual march is held in memory of a 17-year-old Swedish boy who was beaten and stabbed to death by a group of teenagers in 2000, most of them from immigrant backgrounds.

The chaos is an annual reminder of the increasingly fragile situation in Sweden, long known for its calm, tranquillity and liberal immigration politics.

Increased problems with segregation, a number of high-profile honor killings and criminal cases involving immigrants, the rise of the extreme right and the significant increase in racially motivated hate crimes all indicate that Sweden might be headed toward a major cultural clash.

In August, thousands of people from all over Scandinavia took to the streets to protest editorial cartoons printed in a small Swedish daily showing the prophet Mohammed as a dog. Similar to the Danish cartoons that sparked worldwide riots two years ago, the cartoons were printed next to an editorial criticizing self-censorship.

But drawing from the experience with the Danish cartoons, the Swedish government and the Muslim leaders in the country quickly urged people to remain calm and to use the cartoons as basis for debate. Although the cartoons attracted harsh criticism from all over the Muslim world, Sweden managed to avoid what could have become “Scandinavian cartoons the sequel.”

The newly appointed minister of integration, Nyamko Sabuni, viewed the incident as a necessary part of the open dialogue needed to increase and improve integration.

“I understand that some people feel insulted, and they have every right to object. But to use this to limit free speech and press is a very big step,” Ms. Sabuni told TT, a Swedish news agency.

It's uncommon for Scandinavians to speak candidly about the problems with immigration. Political correctness stop most, and those who criticize the liberal policy are sometimes labeled “racist” or “Islamophobic.”

Compared with in previous years, Norway, Finland and Sweden each recorded a record number of immigrant arrivals last year.

But compared with in Norway and Finland, a majority of the immigrants in Sweden were asylum-seekers and not immigrants seeking work.

In the past 18 months alone, almost 20,000 Iraqis have come to Sweden. For a country of only 9 million, that represents a 0.2 percent population increase. That would be the equivalent of the United States taking in some 600,000 refugees.

The Swedish Migration Court recently stunned many by declaring that Iraq is no longer a “conflict zone” and that an immigrant must have close family in the country or prove that there is a personal threat preventing them from going back.

Kristina Alvendal, city commissioner of housing and integration in Stockholm, the ruling means that “coming from Iraq is no longer a free ticket. Every case must now be tried on its own merits.”

Sweden does not have a long history of immigration, and Swedes are not very tolerant toward immigration, Mrs. Alvendal said.

Sweden's social-welfare system is very generous, and when a person is granted refugee status, they are offered a house, language classes, education and access to a system that pays for everything from rent to food and clothes. The government encourages municipalities to accept immigrants by offering subsidies, Mrs. Alvendal said, adding that immigrants are allowed to settle where they want.

“The only thing we ask is that they find a place to live. In most cases, people chose to move to areas where they know somebody, have large number of countrymen or at least an area they have heard of,” she said.

According to some observers, self-segregation appears to be the foundation for Sweden's current problems. Most immigrants are concentrated in the suburbs outside Sweden's three biggest cities, Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo.

Masoud Kamali, professor at Uppsala University, does not agree that immigrants have a free choice to move where they want. In many cases, he said, they are unable to get apartments elsewhere.

“Segregation leads to people feeling left out, which creates an us-and-them mentality, and serves as a hotbed for radicalism,” Mr. Kamali said.

He criticized the Swedish government for not addressing the flaws in its politics and dealing with the real problem.

“If we don't work with this problem now, it will grow and become a serious danger for security. … The government doesn't want to recognize the problem, because then they have to admit the flaws in their own politics,” he said.

Out of about 500,000 Muslims in Sweden, there are only about 10 percent who actively practice their religion, Mr. Kamali said.

“It is important to remember that many of those who come here have fled political and religious oppression, but when they get here and are not accepted, they return to a stronger faith in Islam,” Mr. Kamali said.

In areas with a high concentration of immigrants, dependency on welfare is higher and there are higher crime rates. A report from the National Council for Crime Prevention found that immigrants are 2.5 times more likely to have been arrested for a crime. However, the report also states that if the immigrant factor is removed, statistics on all those arrested, including native Swedes, show higher levels of social welfare and higher crime rates.

At the same time, a recent poll by the SIFO Research International measuring Swedish attitudes, show that Swedes are more negative toward Muslim immigrants than toward immigrants from other religions.

“On a scale from 1 to 7 where 1 is most negative, Muslims get an average of 3.1 compared to Catholics 3.9, Protestants 4.4 and Jews 3.9,” said Toivo Sjoren at the SIFO.

Another SIFO poll shows that Sverige Demokraterna, a political party with a clear anti-immigration agenda, would get only 3.1 percent of the votes if elections were held today, compared with six years ago when they had less than 1 percent. The growth in popularity is significant, because to win a seat in parliament, the threshold is 4 percent.

The British Council recently released the Migrant Integration Policy Index, looking at 100 indicators including laws, access to labor markets and education in 28 countries. Sweden was ranked No. 1 with an ambitious program to integrate and educate immigrants.

“I think it shows us that the tools are there but that we need to learn how to use them better,” Mrs. Alvendal said.

Mr. Kamali disagreed and said that integration reports cannot only look at the laws because they are applied selectively.

“On the paper, it looks good that we have equal rights; but it is not all about equal rights, it is about equal opportunities.”