Thanks to Donald Trump’s false claim that a terrorist attack occurred in Sweden people are taking an interest in the country. What is really going on there? Does it have a problem with immigration, or crime, or violence? If so, what are the implications for everyone else?
Before asking these questions, we also need to ask one other question: what do we already know about Sweden? If you ask Swedes themselves what they are known for, they will tell you it is their liberal, tolerant traditions. One of the great ethnographic mysteries is how the brutal, fascistic Vikings, who went round raiding, pillaging and running amok, have become the pathologically moderate, reasonable, socially responsible democrats of present day Scandinavia.
As this is what we know Sweden for, everything which happens in Sweden is thought to be a product of this tolerance. Hear something, and we relate it to the stereotype we already have. There was a time when if anyone broke an athletics record it was automatically assumed that they must be on drugs. For the same reason, if something happens in Sweden it must be related to this liberal tradition, and have no other cause.
If a country known not to like “foreigners” had trouble with immigrants this would be expected. It would be assumed that the attitude of its government was the product of historical experience, and is now being justified by contemporary events. But if a country regarded as welcoming to all has a problem, this implies that any country which takes in migrants is foolish.
The connection we are being asked to make is clear – anti-immigrant policies are right, pro-immigrant policies are wrong. But you have to know rather more about Sweden than you are being told to interpret the information given, just as you do with everything else. You can prove anything by taking points in isolation, and politicians routinely do. But if we are supposed to take any notice we need to be told how these stories have come about – and this is where we see what is really going on in Sweden.
We know who we are
If you walk around Stockholm you will indeed see the same variety of faces you see in any European city. People from all over the world now call Sweden home, and like immigrants everywhere get on with their lives without anyone having a problem most of the time. However this, in itself, is supposed to mean that Sweden has a problem.
It is often said that the Sweden Democrats, the local anti-immigrant party, has risen as a result of this immigration pattern and the problems it has brought. It is true that this party had little support until immigration stated rising, and that it represents an open departure from the welfare-loving Social Democrats, who still set the Swedish agenda whether or not they are in power . However the situation is more complicated than that.
One thing you immediately notice on a visit to Sweden, which is supported by longer term observation from sources within the country, is that Swedes talk to each other and non-Swedes talk to themselves. If Swedes know people of non-Swedish backgrounds from their workplaces they are happy to interact with them. But in general there is little informal social integration between Swedes and non-Swedes, which is not what you would expect in a tolerant country.
This is not to suggest that Swedes are racist or unwelcoming. There is precious little of the inter-community hostility found in many countries, and outside the exclusive ranks of the far right parties racist language is not heard – even comments regarded as harmless jibes in some countries, and accepted as such by those they are aimed at, are not considered acceptable or amusing in Sweden.
But a subtle, but very strong, form of Swedish Exceptionalism still dominates local society. The locals know who they are and everyone else can take it or leave it. Put simply, the Swedish outlook is – “We are Swedish, why do we need to bother with anyone else?”
Sweden does indeed look after itself economically. Though it is a secular country it is also permeated by a Lutheran tradition. The Swedish Lutheran Church is one of those which objected to the Church of Rome and developed an alternative theology it sees as independent, but actually differs little from that of any other Protestant church. This has bred an independence of spirit, and justification of local ways, which remains at the heart of the country even though the number of practising Lutherans in Sweden is now very small.
Sweden is also officially neutral, and has maintained its independence despite this in an age where everyone goes running to some bloc or other. It has nothing to prove in this respect, having once had a substantial empire.
All this has made Sweden exactly the opposite of the US – it is a country which does things its own way, but doesn’t feel so insecure about the value of its way that it has to impose it on everyone else. It has also made Swedes seem self-enclosed to the immigrant, but this is not through any rejection of other people, countries and cultures.
The Swedish Democrats have not risen because Swedes have a problem with immigrants. They have emerged because the welfare system Swedes believe in has failed. Though support is available, accessing it can be difficult because frontline staff have no motivation to know what they are talking about, or to refer the enquirer to the next agency, which might be able to help. Consequently people turn to others in their own communities for help navigating the system, which makes them appear to be operating outside the Swedish rules.
Furthermore there are legal peculiarities to the tax, employment and housing markets which mean that most non-Swedes, and many Swedes, operate in a semi-legal “grey market”. Though the same actions, such as sub-leasing an apartment, would be perfectly legal in most countries and are tolerated for this reason, many Swedish residents are theoretically criminalised for taking them. In the nature of things this affects newer arrivals more than established residents, fuelling further uncertainty about them amongst people perfectly happy with themselves.
The Swedish Democrats do appeal to racists, but most of their supporters argue that the more you help immigrants the more help they need, as is evidenced by the non-Swedes begging for a living on the trains and in the streets. It is easier to deport immigrants than make the Swedish welfare system work, if you think your system is perfectly good to begin with. The far right offers the same solution in any country.
Sweden doesn’t have a problem with immigrants, and immigrants don’t have a problem with Sweden. So why are there reports of problems? Again, local context is the key to interpreting the information given.
Nothing too much trouble
The Swedish police would be the first to know about problems with immigrants. According to Nigel Farage, Malmö has become the rape capital of Europe thanks to migrants, rather than Swedes, although those same good Swedes would be rapist migrants themselves if they went to Farage’s UK.
If you look at certain statistics – though not others – Sweden does indeed have a higher percentage of reported rapes than any other country. These statistics are taken from police records. What they actually show however is that Sweden has different crime reporting protocols than most countries, as a result of its inclusive traditions.
What the Swedish police classify as “rape” is any sort of sexual offence, including the sort of misbehaviour recorded under other headings, or not recorded at all, in other countries. Sweden reports things in this way because it wants to encourage women to come forward with any sort of complaint of a domestic nature, which they have been notoriously reluctant to do in most countries. It is being criticised for taking sexual offences, and others, more seriously than other countries, rather than because more offences take place, as other indicators demonstrate.
English journalist Rumwold Leigh lives on the Ronna estate in Södertälje. He has this to say about crime and immigration in Sweden:
“This is supposed to be the worst estate in the worst town in Sweden. This is because 40% of this town’s population are immigrants like me, and the figure is much higher on this estate.
There is no visible crime here, no spots associated with things like drug dealing or prostitution, and the local police station is open for two hours a week. I went and asked them what they did there once, and they told me they run activity programmes for children and do paperwork, most of which is done by civil agencies in other countries. When I asked about crime and disorder they quoted one example, a stabbing in the next district.
I happen to know the victim, and she had been stabbed in the hand by a mentally ill Swedish man who had done this before. According to her the police hadn’t even taken the incident seriously, and it was only after he did it again that they bothered to identify him and take him away. This is their one example of local crime, it didn’t even happen in this district and no immigrants were involved. Sweden’s “immigrant crime problem” is media hype, pure and simple.”
This is how crime in Sweden can come to international attention. When nothing much happens, every incident seems bigger than it is.
Horses without their own mouths
After Donald Trump’s confusing comments Radio Sweden, an English language radio station, ran a series of online articles about what life was like in places the local police had identified as “vulnerable areas” in a report. It is not known how many people were interviewed, or how those interviews were edited, but the general feeling in each place was that there were few real problems there, and nothing which didn’t go on in similar parts of any other country.
When these articles were opened for comment many people disagreed with this assessment, stating that Sweden undeniably had problems and that these were the result of immigration. It was almost as if they had been alerted to these articles by a third party and fed a script, as seems to be happening with the people who comment on Brexit articles in large numbers when they seem to have no previous history of reading the publications concerned.
Radio Sweden asked each of these individuals whether they actually lived in Sweden. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they either didn’t reply or admitted they didn’t live there. The impression they had gained had therefore come from international media reports rather than personal experience. Given the way the world is going, it is not hard to see why.
Your storm, not ours
There was a time when all countries wanted to be more like Sweden believes itself to be – inclusive, liberal, socially responsible, up with the times. That didn’t solve everyone’s problems though, like any other human system. So political parties, and ultimately governments, became more divisive in an effort to court the votes of the many by blaming the few. We now live in a world where David Cameron is ridiculed for saying “we’re all in this together” when successive governments, in his country and many others, have profited for years by saying that only certain people are responsible for the bad situation their countries are in.
Sweden has largely bucked this trend. Rightly or wrongly, it has retained its reputation for behaving as all countries once said they wanted to do. Now those countries take the opposite view Sweden has to be shown to be having problems for being different. These problems have to be imprinted on Sweden, whether real or not, to justify what other countries have done – the measures their populations would never accept, if they saw them as a con imposed upon them by governments of any persuasion.
Sweden plays along with this to some extent. Its Red-Green government has introduced stronger immigration controls due to international pressure , and is now reintroducing conscription due to “increased military activity” in the Baltic. No one is likely to invade or threaten Sweden, because if they did Sweden would once again be lauded as a wonderful liberal democracy under attack by forces with different values. Everyone has too much to lose to allow that to happen, without Sweden taking any measures at all.
Sweden is being subjected to a barrage of international condemnation because people who know they are wrong have to prove themselves right before everyone else finds this out too. When Steve McQueen was at the height of his Hollywood fame he stunned the industry by heavily disguising himself to make a film of Ibsen’s classic An Enemy of the People, about a man persecuted for speaking the truth when this upset too many vested interests in his town. If McQueen were alive today, he would play the part as a nobler version of the current Swedish Prime Minister.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.