Malmö, in the southern part of the country, is Sweden’s third largest city. Malmö — and especially one part of it, called Rosengård — is often mentioned in Islamophobic (and xenophobic) propaganda as a worrying example of what the future will bring unless we put an end to immigration – violence, social unrest, etc. It is true that more than 80 per cent of Rosengård’s inhabitants are immigrants, or born to immigrants. But also true as well is that the city district suffers from a high level of unemployment rate. Only 38 percent of people who are of working age have a job. Well-educated immigrants cannot find jobs because they do not have Swedish-sounding names.
Often, xenophobia is expressed through words and not through action. Every now and then there are assailants who want to take the matter into their own hands. This is what has happened in Sweden.
In the course of one year or so, fifteen suspicious shootings took place in Malmö, killing one and wounding eight people. The police concluded that the same weapon had been used in several of the shootings (including the lethal one). Another pattern quickly became obvious: all but one of the fifteen victims were of immigrant background.
The shooter became known as “the New Laser Man.” His predecessor, a man named John Ausonius, ravaged Stockholm in 1991-1992. Initially equipped with a rifle and a laser sight — which he later exchanged for a revolver — Ausonius’s profound hatred for immigrants drove him to shoot eleven people. One died. Ausonius, who himself had been bullied in school for his dark hair and appearance (his parents were immigrants from Germany and Switzerland), is serving a life sentence for his crime. A Swedish journalist of Assyrian origin recalled that as a pupil in Sweden of the early 1990s, some of her classmates would wear a t-shirt with the writing: “The Laser Man – A Luminous Point in The Everyday Life.”
So when shootings targeting immigrants started taking place in Malmö, it brought back some bad memories. People who matched the profile were afraid of going out in the evenings, worried that they would be randomly selected by the New Laser Man.
In November, a 38-year-old man was finally arrested on suspicion for the attacks. In court, Peter Mangs has thus far shown no sign of remorse. The case is still pending and the evidence brought against him seems to be strong.
This is a maniac who acted on his own, but in what context? His predecessor, John Ausonius was at work in the early 1990s when a right-wing populist party calling itself New Democracy managed to enter the Parliament on an anti-immigration platform (the party suffered from internal issues and it did not get to keep any seats in the following election). Coincidentally, as the New Laser Man haunted Malmö, the elections of 19 September, 2010 had an unpleasant outcome. The Sweden Democrats received more than the needed 4% of the vote and now holds the balance of power in the Parliament.
The Sweden Democrats party was founded in 1988 and several of its early leading members had a past in neo-Nazi and other types of extremist right-wing organisations.1 One of them, Anders Klarström, who was the party’s chairman between1989 and 1995, was convicted in 1986 after threatening a famous TV personality, well-known for his anti-racism activism, with death by leaving a message on his answering-machine. Klarström’s phone message read: “We’re gonna burn you, you [f……] Jew swine! Damn it, you disgusting little Jew swine! Be careful! We’re gonna come and kill you!” But that was in 1980s.
Today the party stands removed from the most extreme elements. They have now reorganised and rebranded themselves. The new image seems to be successful. But even if their outright hate rhetoric is rare these days, their racist outlook is not hard to locate. If Sweden Democrats are to be believed, virtually all of Sweden’s problem can be traced to its liberal immigration policies. Party Chairman Jimmie Åkesson keeps reiterating that immigration costs Sweden “huge” sums of money, though Åkesson is careful to avoid an exact figure. Other party members claim that immigration costs 300 billion Swedish Krona, or 10% of GDP. Economists who have examined the issue on the other hand, give an estimate ranging between 20 and 40 billion kronor. Nonetheless, we need to choose, Åkesson and his party argue, between immigration or welfare.
In October of 2009, Åkesson was allowed to express his party’s opinions in an article in Sweden’s largest daily. While immigration is seen as the general problem, it is evident that a certain group is identified as the single biggest threat. Åkesson complained that “today’s multi-cultural Swedish power elite is so completely blind of the dangers posed by Islam and Islamisation.” Islam differs from Christianity, Åkesson went on explaining, “for example in terms of making a distinction between spiritual and worldly power, and in its view of the use of violence. Islam has no equivalence to the New Testament and no universal commandment of love.” He continued that Islam is “our biggest foreign threat since World War Two.”2 In the election a year later the Sweden Democrats won 5.7% of the votes.
Sadly, Åkesson is not the most ardent Islamophobe among the party’s prominent figures. The party’s spokesperson for international affairs, Ted Ekeroth, does not even pretend to cover his anti-Muslim prejudice. Last year, Ekeroth and his twin brother Kent Ekeroth launched “The Anti-Islamisation Fund”. It was founded “as a part of the struggle against Islam” and collects money in order to stop the supposed “Islamisation” of Sweden.
Ekeroth first became known to the public a few years ago when a newspaper revealed that he, a leading figure within the Sweden Democrats party, was one of the 2006 recipients of the Herzl Award, handed out by the World Zionist Organisation. The motivation read: “Each of these young people has shown outstanding leadership and devotion to Israel and Zionism through their exceptional volunteer efforts on behalf of Israel and the Zionist cause in their respective countries.”3
The World Zionist Organisation is said to have regretted its decision after finding out about Ekeroth’s party affiliation. The recipient, however, sees nothing contradictory in being Jewish and working for a Swedish nationalist party: “If you’re a Zionist, then you’re a Jewish nationalist. And in such a case you also need to respect Swedish nationalism.” For Ekeroth, Israel and Sweden have a common enemy.
SAME OLD, SAME OLD
In many ways, Swedish Islamophobia resembles anti-Muslim prejudice in other parts of the Western world. The importance of the 9/11 attacks must not be underestimated. Sure, the Western audience did not have an all too positive image of Muslims prior to the attacks. What has changed is that even the world’s only superpower has proven to be vulnerable to “the Muslim threat.” The subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have only led to higher tensions.
Most dangerous however, is the attempt to equate pious Muslims with violence. Muslims abiding by their religion are commonly framed as “radicals” whilst those who are less interested in religious life are labelled “moderates.” This is dangerous, because if religious Muslims are seen as posing a threat to the safety of others, then actions need to be taken to stop them.
Violence is not the only negative stereotype associated with Islam. A common argument used by Islamophobes is to point to human rights violations and repressive regimes in Muslims countries as proof of what domestic Muslim populations would like to introduce in Sweden while at the same time choosing to ignore that many Muslims left their homelands precisely because of repressive regimes.
A way of “proving” that the Muslim minorities does not value democratic rights has been to use provocations. When the Danish newspaper published the disgraceful cartoons of prophet Muhammad in 2005, newspapers in different countries, including Sweden, responded by following Jyllands-Posten’s example and published similar defamatory cartoons which were further supported by, leading journalists, lawmakers and others, who quickly argued for the protection of freedom of speech.
Less known is the fact that Flemming Rose, the cultural editor at Jyllands-Posten who was responsible for publishing the cartoons, in the following year — probably in an attempt not to be seen as being biased — said that his newspaper planned on publishing cartoons from the “International Holocaust Cartoon Competition”, which had been announced by an Iranian newspaper in response to the Danish publication. Jyllands-Posten’s editor-in-chief, Carsten Juste, was not pleased with the idea and assured that such cartoons would never appear in his paper. The following day the cultural editor went on a leave for a few months. For a paper purporting to stand up for freedom of speech, Jyllands-Posten certainly failed.
IN A GLOBALISED WORLD, THE MIDDLE EAST IS NOT FAR AWAY
With a strong focus on the Middle East, tensions between Western countries and their Muslim minorities is understandable. The situation is not helped by the fact that many Muslim leaders have a limited understanding of Swedish society, and therefore have difficulty in countering Islamophobic propaganda. Most imams speak no or little Swedish. Swedish authorities are working on establishing a programme for educating future imams. Religions always adjust to their environment to some extent, which gives hope to the possibility of seeing a more ‘Swedishised’ Muslim community in the future, which will be more successful in giving the community a better reputation.
As I write this, Stockholm has experienced its first suicide bombing. A car was set on fire in central Stockholm and shortly after a suicide bomber blew himself up three hundred metres away from the car. Fortunately, most of the explosives the man was carrying around his waist did not detonate, and he was the only one who died in the attacks.
Ten minutes before the attacks the media and the security police got an e-mail containing audio files in Swedish and Arabic with the name and picture of the suicide bomber, now identified as Taimour Abdulwahab. The files contained chilling messages such as: “Our actions will speak for themselves, as long as you do not end your war against Islam and humiliation of the Prophet and your stupid support to the pig Vilks” (who drew Muhammad cartoons) and encouraged other Muslims to join the fight.
The police said that the failed suicide bombing was “amateurish” and they were unsure whether he was operating on his own. But no matter if this turns out to be the acts of one disturbed Muslim individual or a small group, it will inevitably have very negatives consequences for the Muslim community. In the eyes of the ordinary Westerner, Abdulwahab blew himself up for Islam. Very few people are able to decipher that the bomber’s frustrations and grievances most likely emanate from a victim mentality seeing the daily attacks and killing of Muslims in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Furthermore, they justify attacks on Western targets on the basis of asymmetrical warfare, as was made articulated clearly by the Stockholm bomber: “Now your children, daughters and sisters will die like our brothers and sisters and children are dying.”4 I believe Abdulwahab partly wanted to change the way we think about these wars, to make us understand that if we fight wars abroad it will strike us back at home. For too long we have lived with the illusion that the Swedish military presence in Afghanistan will not have any domestic consequences.
The general public has reacted to the Stockholm bombings with fear, which extends to the Muslim community too. For the latter, they know that more people will now look upon Muslims with greater suspicion. The imam of the grand mosque of Stockholm, Shaykh Hassan Mussa, was quick to denounce “all forms of attacks, violence, fears and threats against innocent people, whatever the motive or pretext.” Other Swedish-Muslim leaders have joined him in condemnation of the attack. But will it have any affect?
Thankfully, the mainstream media in general have been responsible in reporting this incident, emphasising that a whole community cannot be held responsible for the actions of an individual. However, the same could not be said about the Internet, where many people are flooding sites with comments about how Islam encourages terrorism and that it must be stopped. The claim that Muslims support suicide bombings is particularly ironic since the greater majority of the victims of such attacks are Muslims. But then again, fear is a powerful feeling that is seldom based on logical arguments. We can only hope that in the end common sense prevails.
- “Bakgrund: Bakom den demokratiska fasaden,” EXPO 19, April, 2003. [↩]
- “Muslimerna är vårt största utländska hot,” Aftonbladet, 19 October, 2009. [↩]
- “Herzl Award Recipients 2006,” World Zionist Organisation. [↩]
- Nyberg, Per. “Explosions in Stockholm Believed to be Failed Terrorist Attack,” CNN, 12 December, 2010. [↩]