Last week’s election saw big gains for the nationalist Sweden Democrats while the Social Democrats suffered their worst results in over a century. But is it really all because of rising xenophobia?
Until quite recently, Sweden had the most open immigration policy in Europe, registering some 400,000 asylum requests since 2012; this in a country of just ten million. Over the course of two decades, the once homogenous nation has been transformed into a multicultural society with one in five residents now foreign-born. “Many people feel like their identity is under threat and that their homeland is being transformed beyond recognition,” says Mattias Karlsson, chief ideologue of the nationalist, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats. His party is the Swedish election’s big winner, having grown from 12.9 percent in 2014 to 17.6 percent, according to last week’s preliminary results. At 28.4 percent, the incumbent Social Democrats had their worst election results in over a hundred years. Social Conservatism is once again a force to be reckoned with in Swedish politics after half a century of Socialism versus Liberalism.
With populist movements, and their anti-immigration platforms, gaining ground in many Western nations, it would be easy to attribute the advances of the Sweden Democrats to rising xenophobia. However, Armenian immigrant Samvel Atabekyan, is convinced Sweden’s changing political landscape has less to do with xenophobia or ideology and more to do with culture. He believes the growth of the Sweden Democrats is tied to the Swedes’ rising, repressed frustration as they wrestle with the untenable conflict between powerful values and an inability to engage newcomers in direct conversations about norms and expectations. “There have been many times when I’ve done or said something, and then felt the quiet disapproval of Swedish onlookers, yet had no idea what I did wrong,” Samvel explains. “Asking doesn’t help. People simply reply that there is no ‘right way’ of doing things.”
Since the turn of the millennium, the political leadership has publicly and systematically denied the existence of Swedish culture. “The only thing that’s truly Swedish is barbarism,” then Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said when visiting the immigration-dense suburb of Ronna in 2006. And when Mona Sahlin, then Minister of Integration, was interviewed by the Turkish Youth Association she said: “I can’t think of what Swedish culture is. I think that is what makes many Swedes so jealous of immigrants. You have a culture, an identity, a history, something that binds you together. And what do we have? We have Midsummer celebrations and such ‘silly’ things.”
In October 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, the government organized an event called “Sweden Together” where Ingrid Lomfors, historian and superintendent of The Living History Forum, declared that: “There is no native Swedish culture.” While undoubtedly meant as an effort to emphasize openness, it was an unwelcome message for many Swedes, but also for immigrants like Samvel Atabekyan who want nothing more than to embrace Swedishness. He had worked for eight years to become fluent in Swedish. Watching his first undubbed Bergman movie or reading August Strindberg without consulting a dictionary had been important milestones. He’d even taken on the darker shades of Swedishness and worked hard to discern the difference between the various types of Swedish ångest (anxiety or angst) used to express everything from mundane sufferings such as bakisångest (the anxiety experienced during a bad hangover) to the types of deep, existential pain that seemed to accompany Swedes through life. It had taken all of his intellectual ability to grasp and incorporate Swedishness. And here were the elites, publicly claiming there was no such thing. Samvel was not alone in his disappointment. While he distanced himself from the Sweden Democrats, he couldn’t help but note that they were now gaining ground even among immigrants. By 2018, the party had greater support among immigrant women than among their Swedish-born counterparts.
For years, the Swedish state had turned a blind eye to culturally related abuse of minority women when it occurred on Swedish soil, while simultaneously being very critical of such practices in foreign countries. In 2014, Sweden became the first country in the world to adopt a feminist foreign policy aiming to ensure that women worldwide could enjoy their fundamental human rights. Meanwhile, religious extremists were patrolling Swedish suburbs unperturbed, telling women what to wear and how to act. “Many young women of foreign background appreciate that we are very clear in our condemnations of honorary violence, forced marriages, and genital mutilation. All women who live in this country should have the right to choose their partners, and to live and dress as they choose,” says Karlsson.
In 2004, British philosopher Roger Scruton first brought the term ‘oikophobia’ into the political sphere to depict the antithesis of xenophobia: “the disposition, in any conflict, to side with ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours.’” Nationalism taken to any extreme is destructive, but so is the opposite – the denunciation of ones’ heritage and culture leaves a hole in the soul that can spur strong emotional responses in those yearning to belong, and fuel destabilizing forces in society. There are signs that some lessons have been learned. Over the past two years, political leaders from most parties have begun to acknowledge the existence of Swedish values and their importance to integration. As a result, this election is largely about coming to terms with what it means to be Swedish. While the resulting self-awareness will undoubtedly take some time to make its way into integration policies, the nascent conversation, and the increasing willingness to address uncomfortable topics, bodes well for the future of both native and aspiring Swedes alike.