[This is an interview originally published in summer 2016]
“Multiculturalism”. The man sitting across from me hates the word.
There is something youthful about him, despite his dark suit and serious, angular face. He’s a little nervous. This is the first interview he’s given in English, but as soon as he starts speaking he seems to grow a few years older.
He is the chairman for the Swedish Democrats in this small municipality of Stockholm. The Swedish Democrats are part of something – ‘part of a trend in the whole of Europe’ he says: the AfD in Germany, the DPP in neighboring Denmark, Austria’s FPÖ, the Front National and Le Pen, UKIP and Nigel Farage.
They are, collectively, the ‘rise of the right’ in Europe. Dramatic, but true – in the past decade they’ve been there to make up ground lost by the centre left. Europe’s migrant crisis has only hastened their march onto mainstream political ground. The success of a “populist” national party is particularly shocking in supposedly lefty Scandinavia, but as early as fifteen years ago the Danish People’s Party was voicing its opinion that immigration, multiculturalism and Islam were alien to Danish values. Throughout the 2000’s minority coalition governments in Denmark were beholden to the DPP and during this period Denmark’s immigration policy became one of the strictest in Europe.
Sweden now seems set to follow Denmark’s example. According to Pavle, my Swedish Democrat chairman, the SD’s fortunes have undergone a sea change in the past few years:
“After the first election, 2010, it was mayhem, ten thousand or so people came out to demonstrate against us after we had entered parliament. But after the second election in 2014, after we were still in parliament, people kind of got used to us, we’re there, we’re part of it”
In 2014 the Swedish Democrats came second, taking 13% of the popular vote compared to the ruling Social Democratic’s 30%. A poll last August even found that more Swedes identify with the Swedish Democrats than any other party.
“These days you can say openly that you are Sweden Democrat – in some places you will still lose your job – but it is getting much better than before”.
Concurrent with their increasingly warm public reception was the weeding out of ‘anti-democratic tendencies’, ‘nationalist tendencies, blunt nationalism so to speak’. For years now, the SD’s leader, Jimmie Åkesson, has led a “moderating” campaign: shaking off the party’s quasi-Fascist grassroots, excommunicating their yobbish youth party and publicly ousting ‘extremists’. In the process of becoming a legitimate contender in the Riksdag they have also taken stances on the economy, foreign policy and security issues.
But Pavle’s distaste for multiculturalism is still the mainstay of his party’s political platform. Their popularity, and their passion, derives from their ‘nationalist foundation’ and a concept of ‘open Swedishness’, which compliments their anti-immigration stance with a strict assimilationist policy.
“It depends on how you define it, but as generally considered, you, through political decisions – I won’t say force – but make people of different cultures live side by side – I think this is – I don’t know if there is an english equivalent of the word I am looking for… but it is a desktop ideology. Something that works well on paper, but doesn’t work well in practice. So yeah, I get mostly negative associations when I hear the word multiculturalism – because of what we have seen with the rapid increase in crime. It doesn’t work. Just like Communism looks good on paper – workers of the world unite – try it in the real world, it leads to oppression.”
But Pavle wasn’t born a member of the Swedish Democrats. Ten years ago the grandson of Serbian immigrants was a Social Democrat. His conversion was ‘a long process of discovery’.
“It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time or event that triggered, maybe opened my eyes to it. But one day, I – just didn’t recognize the Sweden I grew up in. It felt like a different country somehow. It’s this sense of Swedish society that made me realize something had to be done. That there is this value worth preserving… I am from one of the worst suburbs of Stockholm, when it comes to crime, I think one year, 7 or 8 years ago, it ranked top of the country in stabbings per capita or something. So I grew up around here. And as I went to school I could feel the propaganda of – being world citizens instead of Swedes, of the United Nations – We are just singing Kumbaya my Lord, and somewhere along the road I felt – this isn’t right – I mean, first and foremost we should be Swedes, and then some sort of global citizen.”
And it’s a cliche to say so, but it is a familiar story. A third of the electorate identify with Pavle’s party. Many more value his ‘sense of Swedish society’ and see immigration as a threat. And this wave of right wing, anti-consensus outrage, this hostility to globalization, which offers classless identity politics and a promise of security against a perceived clash of civilizations, this is familiar too – across Europe it is familiar.
Pavle and his colleagues see themselves as victims of Sweden’s political culture. If the lefty Scandy image is outdated in Denmark, it is perhaps still applicable in Sweden, which is mocked by Norway and Denmark for its politcal correctness. There is an expression in Swedish, “asiktskorridor”, which means “opinion corridor”, it refers to the narrow range of opinions one is allowed to have. Raising questions about immigration used to inevitably welcome accusations of racism. That is changing, but not fast enough for Pavle.
“We don’t have the same kind of free speech that the US has – and this is my own personal theory – but I think the reason is a combination of seventy years of social democratic rule in combination with Jante’s law, which is a Swedish cultural phenomenon, the idea that a society must be equal, in spite of individual success – I think 70 years of leftist rule is to blame”
The uniformity of Swedish society and its decades long practice of consensus politics might have helped foster an atmosphere particularly hostile to perceived racism, but the political correctness which irks Pavle is native to all lands. In January Swedish police were embroiled in a cover up of sex attacks by refugees at a music festival, but the reluctance of authorities to point the finger at migrants in Cologne last year was just as disturbing.
The migrant crisis has tested the sympathies of the left to breaking point – one Foreign Policy article proclaims ‘the death of the most generous nation on earth’. Anti-immigrant rhetoric has become normalized in ‘humanitarian superpowers’ like Sweden, where once it was strictly taboo.
Assimilationist strategies have failed in France and Belgium; long neglected immigrant groups former colonies are being further alienated, pushed from their grandfathers’ secularism into an increasingly popular sense of global Muslim identity. Multiculturalist strategies in Britain, until the backlash against them circa mid 2000s, have likewise failed.
Whether or not you blame the failure of civil society in integration, or a mistake in policy. Whether or not you even recognize a problem, the rhetoric is there, the narrative has already been set in motion. A fearful electorate yearn for a culturally based national identity they perceive as incompatible with Islam and the Other. Second and third generation immigrants are further alienated and see the global Muslim identity as a serious alternative. The stage has been set for a clash of civilizations, and recent historical events have only exacerbated this feedback loop.
Lefties cling to their own form of identity politics. In Sweden and Germany especially they are rightly sensitive to any whiff of Fascism. But the SD maybe have a point: this reactionary stance immediately associates even the softest nationalism with racism, while immigrants are untouchable and blameless embodiments of humanitarian values which form a part of this political identity.
Next year Sweden will spend 7% of its budget on refugees, and they have already run out of room. The migrant crisis could have been a major success story for the EU, but it wasn’t. Uncomfortably for Sweden’s left, the SD’s argument, that mass immigration is untenable, is at a certain point. it’s truth is part of the reason the SD have gained so much traction. But this reality comes packaged with questions of identity. A growing number of people find their traditionally homogenous culture under an existential demographic threat. But if ideology is dead and identity politics rules the roost, then the left takes for its identity the same globally minded, liberal perspective that the right eschew. Some form of “Multiculturalism” is a central tenet of this identity and both ends of the spectrum see the changes in their country very differently.
Rinkeby is a an area of Stockholm famous for its dense and largely poor immigrant population. It is nicknamed ‘little Mogadishu’ by Swedes of a certain mentality. It has become a symbol for the erosion of Swedish cultural identity, a hub of hostile otherness within. In 2010 immigrant youths in Rinkeby attacked the police station, rioted and set fires outside the metro. This year an Australian TV crew were attacked in Rinkeby and the incident was caught on camera. Depending upon who you talk to, these sort of incidents are typical of immigrant behavior in Rinkeby and across Sweden.
The square outside Rinkeby metro station is perhaps a little more drab than other areas of central Stockholm, but its a far cry from the worst areas of other European cities. There is a small outdoor vegetable market and a shopping mall. A curry house sits on the corner, next to a few clothing shops selling hijabs and a money transfer building. Most of the space in the square is occupied by small cafes, they sell filter coffee to groups of men who sit outside smoking and chatting in Arabic. The older men sit at tables, some gesticulating wildly, others sitting in silence. The teenagers stand, back to the wall of a convenience store, smoking hashish. The coffee is bad, but cheap and served out of huge carafes – these aren’t the sort of places you pop in for a caramel latte. You linger here all day, chewing the cud, and since it is 2pm on a Tuesday, the implication must be that these men have a lot of free time on their hands.
Many people I’d met in Stockholm had warned me not to venture into the badlands of Rinkeby, ‘I advise against it’ says Pavle:
“As far as I’ve gathered they can be skeptical to people of a lighter skin tone – last time I was there, I got a bit shouted out to be honest, and I am not even ethnically Swedish.”
Rinkeby is dominated by first and second generation immigrants. The language you hear most is Arabic, and it is obviously a predominantly Muslim area. A Swede who values a certain Swedish ‘cultural identity’, one which excludes Arabic speaking Muslims, would undoubtedly feel out of place here. According to some reports, they might even feel threatened.
After I had finished talking to Pavle, a young man who had been sitting on a table nearby told me:
“Don’t listen to that guy. His opinions are – they are not the right opinions. You should go there, to Rinkeby. What he was saying is just something people like him like to say. I have a friend, a white friend who has lived in Rinkeby for two years. It is a very multicultural place but it is not violent.”
As I was standing outside, drinking my plastic cup of coffee, one of the hashish smoking group approached me and asked something in Swedish. He was aggressive, but not angry. His friends were laughing, slightly embarrassed and so I took him for a harmless joker as he frisked my jacket. Was I being robbed? was he pretending to rob me? I said that I didn’t speak Swedish. I put up my hands as he had asked me to do, and he soon lost interest. He walked away and the oldest of the group told me:
“It is a prank! Don’t worry, it is a prank. He wanted to see if you are a cop.” He laughed and asked me where I am from. I told him, and he asked me which football team I support, before asking the obvious question on everybody’s mind – “Why did you come to Rinkeby?”