In the 1990s, the face of immigration to Sweden was someone like Robert Acker. His family emigrated from Bosnia when he was 6 years old.
“I got along with the Swedes early on,” he says in American-accented English from his years playing basketball in Kentucky and New York. “But now, I believe it’s a totally different thing.”
Acker lives in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, an industrial center that has become the power base for the far-right Sweden Democrats.
“They want us out,” says Acker. “They just want Swedes here.”
Across Europe, far-right anti-immigrant parties are gaining political power. This is true from the Slavic countries to the British Isles, and from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean.
The change has been especially dramatic in Sweden, which for decades has been known for its openness and tolerance.
Thousands of refugees from Iraq and Syria have settled there recently. Many of them are Muslim — and the ethnic tension is palpable.
“We can’t take care of all the people in the whole world who have needs in their lives,” says security guard Filip Wennerlund.
Wennerlund didn’t mind Christian immigrants, but he believes it’s not working with the Muslims, even though Sweden has had a Muslim population for decades.
“Often they don’t want to come here and change,” he says. “They want to change us. And we don’t want to be changed. So that’s a conflict.”
Tensions Play Out In Politics
The anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats first gained a foothold in Parliament in the 2010 elections. Last September, they more than doubled their performance from 4 years earlier, winning 13 percent of the national vote. For a party with its roots in the Neo-Nazi fringe, this was a remarkable transformation.
“They were much more extreme in the beginning, and now they’re more mainstream,” says Ana-Lena Lodenius, a freelance journalist and author who specializes in far-right political parties. “They want to transform the society,” she says, to make it “more homogeneous.”
To Sweden Democrats and their supporters, immigrants are distorting Swedish society beyond recognition.
“Immigrants are in general little bit more criminal than Swedes born in Sweden, and that’s a fact,” party leader Jimmie Akesson recently told the BBC. “You can see it especially in violence, rape and so on.”
Of course others dispute that claim. Nonetheless, the Sweden Democrats want to cut immigration by 90 percent. And they are willing to take dramatic steps to make it happen.
In December, this insurgent political party brought Sweden’s government to the brink of collapse.
Only two months after the new government took power, the minority Sweden Democrats blocked Prime Minister Stefan Lofven’s budget proposal. He called emergency elections — a development that Anders Widfeldt of the University of Aberdeen calls nearly unprecedented.
Widfeldt, author of a book called Extreme Right Parties in Scandinavia, says the Sweden Democrats proudly declare themselves to be outsiders, dedicated to upsetting the apple cart.
“They are sort of against everybody else,” he says. “And the bigger they grow, of course, the more of a veto power they will have.”
Just before New Year’s, the prime minister forged a new alliance, got a budget deal, and avoided those snap elections. But these tensions are growing far beyond politics.
Racism Isn’t Matter Of Simple ‘Good Versus Evil’
Across Sweden, three mosques were fire-bombed in the span of a month.
“Every time I wake up, I’m very afraid to check my telephone to see that something happened during the night,” says Omar Mustafa, president of the Islamic Association of Sweden.
At an interview in his Stockholm office, he says that although Sweden has a history of racism, “this year, and this time especially, it’s the most scary time actually. People are really afraid, and people are actually talking about moving from Sweden.”
The Sweden Democrats insist that there is no connection between these attacks and the party’s anti-immigration rhetoric. At an interview in Malmo, party official Nima Gholam Ali Pour suggests that Muslims may have fire-bombed the mosques.
“Were there personal problems in the mosque, or was it someone from another mosque,” he asks. “There are conflicts between Muslims.”
When pressed about swastikas that have been painted on the side of mosques, though, Ali says, “Of course that’s racist. That’s racist.”
The story is more complicated than just white racist Christians attacking Muslim immigrants. Jews in Sweden say they are being attacked, too. A recent documentary on Swedish television showed a reporter walking down the street wearing a yarmulke, as a hidden camera filmed bystanders shouting insults and threats.
And in many cases, the people attacking Jews are Muslim immigrants.
“Almost exclusively, they have some sort of background in the Middle East,” says Aron Verstandig, a leader in Stockholm’s Jewish community.
Verstandig says many people try to paint these ethnic tensions as good versus evil. They want clear victims and perpetrators, in separate boxes. But in fact, he says, the roles overlap and switch.
“You have these immigrants who are very poor, and they are the victims of a lot of violence, a lot of hatred from Sweden Democrats and other right-wing parties. And they are victims in one way,” Verstandig says. “But some of them — a minority of them — are perpetrators in another way. You don’t have people who are just good and bad. It’s a very complex situation.”
Omar Mustafa of the Islamic Association of Sweden agrees. He says it’s part of humanity that there are always extremists.
“We have it in Islam, there is in Christianity, there is in the Swedish community. There is everywhere,” Mustafa says. “So it’s a good opportunity for us, the rest of society, to really take back the agenda. And we have to say to them, we don’t buy it.”
Mustafa says when fringe groups try to speak on behalf of everyone, the moderate majority needs to speak up — and say, “We have a different story to tell.”