'Racism is not new in Sweden'

The June 2011 edition of New Internationalist looks at the rise of the far-right across Europe and beyond. In countries such as Austria, France, Denmark, Holland and Italy, far-right parties are making a considerable electoral impact, their brand of anti-immigrant populism chiming with voters’ economic and social fears and a distinct lack of faith in mainstream politicians.

K Biswas visited Stockholm following the election of 20 MPs for the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) and in the June issue he recounts his meetings with far-right politicians and anti-racism activists. He also interviewed Olof Dreijer, one half of electro indie duo The Knife – and talked to him about fear and identity in Sweden following SD’s electoral success and the Christmas terrorist attack on the Swedish capital.

Helgeandsholmen and the Riksdag (Sweden's Parliament), Stockholm.

Holger Staffansson via Riksdag's website.

K Biswas: There was noticeable shock among international observers last year when Sweden, a country always known for its tolerance and diversity, had Sverigedemokraterna (SD – Swedish Democrats, a far-right political party) win representation to its parliament. Has this event reverberated among Swedes themselves?

Olof Dreijer: Yes, I think most people were in shock. There was a lot of discussion about SD just before and after the election, but now – not much. The day after they got into the parliament there were huge demonstrations against racism and SD itself. People were surprised and very sad over the election results. Even though it’s really scary how a racist party with roots in the Nazi movement can make it as far as parliament, I think it’s good that people start discussing the widespread racism in Sweden. Racism is not new in Sweden. When trying to make a change, it’s easier to challenge open than hidden racism.

But on the other hand, the current government also practises politics with racist tendencies, especially the ‘Folkpartiet’ part of the coalition parties. It has put forward a number of problematic propositions, for example, a compulsory Swedish language test for immigrants and to make sure that unemployed immigrants are not entitled to social welfare anymore. They also push the idea of a Swedish culture canon.

Following December’s terror attack in Stockholm, have you noticed a climate of fear developing in the capital? Has there been a change in mood regarding issues of safety and security?

No, not really – surprisingly enough. SD was, of course, raving about it, but otherwise it was dealt with in a reasonable way, as far as I know. But as in many other places, Islamophobia seems to be growing in Sweden. Swedish mainstream media often portrays Muslims as a homogeneous group rather than heterogeneous individuals. It even occurs in politically correct contexts.

Another problem related to this is how racism occurs in the name of women and gay people’s rights. SD has tried to attract gay people by claiming Islam is homophobic – ‘Join us because we’re against Islam.’ They have also tried to make themselves advocates for women’s rights, by claiming that immigrants are more likely to commit sexual crimes and that this can be resolved by a tougher immigration policy. I think it’s very important to take a stand against this. It’s very clear that SD promotes conservative nuclear family values, that they are critical of abortion, divorce, gay marriage and gay people having children.

Do you think that a generation of younger people feel let down by politicians and are more likely to seek to address social change outside party politics?

Yes, I think the development towards more focused activist groups has been going on for a long time. People I know engage in, for example, anti-racist groups, queer and feminist activist groups. There are new spaces for political action, and technology has allowed new strategies.

But parallel with this, a lot of people do not engage politically at all. Prevailing politics focus on the creed of individuality and the dismantling of the democratic welfare system. This makes people totally occupied with basic survival and does not enable any kind of collective political thinking – it is simply creating a breeding ground for a fear-based political practice.

There seems to have been a shift in the way that Europe discusses its diverse minority communities, with mainstream voices launching debates on ‘national identity’ that blur the lines between what is acceptable in political discourse and what marginalizes certain groups of people. Do you think that people feel a growing need to identify themselves, either as part of something larger, or in opposition towards other collective groups?

Neoliberal politics present us with an outdated conception of collectives such as ‘nuclear family’ and ‘nation’. I hope one day we will reach a set of collective identities – a collective that doesn’t necessarily need to be based on identification, but on solidarity and respect. Collective identification can easily be misused and misunderstood, and expressed in, for example, consumerism.

Do you believe that there are practical ways for people to forge a collective identity that is inclusive and open to everyone without falling back on often dangerous notions of ‘nationalism’?

I believe that we can build a society together – that in itself gives us a feeling of a collective – and that this can happen outside the borders of a nation. I’m very much against the idea of the ‘nation’ – I prefer collective identities. I believe that different views and conflict are very important for democratic societies – antagonism or agonism, if you like.

It’s remarkable that in the 21st century, nationality is still seen as something essential. In Sweden, where many white people are unaware of their whiteness, the privileges that come with it, and that it’s something specific rather than ‘normal’, there is confusion between the words ‘Swedish’ and ‘white’ – many people mean ‘white people’ when they say ‘Swedish people’.

In Germany, where I now live, I see similar things. When you take a language course, you are given a very clear image of who is ‘German’ and who is ‘foreign’. You get the impression that a foreigner can never become a German. You are promoted to talk in ways of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ a lot; behaviours and characteristics are often bound to nationality.