Swedes are known for their equanimity, yet a fire bombing of an Islamic Center now places them with so many other nations who are finding it difficult to adapt a wave of immigration.
The new face of Sweden
By Matthew Engel
Published: January 18 2008 21:55 | Last updated: January 18 2008 21:55
The Islamic Centre was firebombed at midnight. The mosque itself was fearfully damaged; the adjoining school and meeting rooms were destroyed. No one knows who was responsible, but the list of possibles is a long one.
It took two years to rebuild. After it reopened there were another two attacks inside a month. People talked about a climate of fear and a breakdown of society.
Is this Baghdad, or Cairo, or Karachi? Not even close. It’s Malmö, the port on the southern edge of the Scandinavian peninsula, and Sweden’s third-biggest city. Normally, it is docile to the point of tedium: for decades Malmö has been seen as a sanctuary from the troubles of the world. And that has become the problem.
Unnoticed by the rest of the world, Sweden has changed, and Malmö has changed dramatically to become one of the most racially divided cities in Europe. Already, 37 per cent of the population were either born abroad or had both parents born abroad. Among children, that figure rises to almost half.
The numbers have been somewhat inflated by the other big change to Malmö – the opening of the bridge across the narrow Oresund seven years ago, linking the city to Copenhagen. Many Danes have moved to this side of the strait, attracted by lower property prices.
Even so, Malmö (population 278,000) is now one-quarter Muslim. And that proportion is rising rapidly due to continuing immigration and differential birth rates. Officials accept that most of the inhabitants will be of non-Swedish origin within a decade, and that a Muslim majority could follow soon after that. Like more obvious multi-ethnic places such as Birmingham and Rotterdam, Malmö would be a “majority minority” city. And that does not factor in the possibility of a new Middle Eastern cataclysm (war in Iran? The disintegration of Iraq?) producing a new surge of refugees.
Local and national politicians are struggling to adapt and respond to these rapid changes. But there is a growing acceptance that “the Swedish model” – exceptionally generous welfare policies combined with an exceptionally generous approach to immigration – is now unsustainable. That has been the basis of Sweden’s image abroad, and of its own self-image. And, in a very quiet, very Swedish way, its collapse is likely to be traumatic.
At first sight, Malmö is everything you expect of a Scandinavian city: clean, pretty, cycle-haunted, quiet, overpriced, dull. Even the lights at pedestrian crossings click discreetly. I fancied that the police cars didn’t have sirens but a recorded message saying “Excuse me!” But I never heard one. The main threat to a pedestrian comes from irate cyclists guarding their cycle lanes against trespassers. This does not feel like a place with problems.
That’s partly because it is one of the most segregated cities in Europe. The migrants are concentrated in one district, Rosengård, with the newest ones in the sub-district of Herrgarden, where the male unemployment rate is 82 per cent. Other locals mention these names with a shudder.
You don’t need a road sign to show you’re in Rosengård. A satellite dish is attached to the balcony of just about every flat, some looking massive enough to draw in pictures from Alpha Centauri, all of them showing channels from home, wherever that may be. Very occasionally, there is an exception: a balcony with the last, lingering flowers of summer, belonging to a rare Swedish-born family who have not moved away.
But if Rosengård is a slum or ghetto, it is a showpiece slum or ghetto. The blocks of flats – no more than eight stories high – are mostly well-maintained. There is no more litter there than anywhere else in town. There are very few graffiti. And although there are many men and teenagers hanging round even on a weekday afternoon, the atmosphere is entirely unthreatening, indeed welcoming. (Very different, said our Danish photographer, from the equivalent areas in Copenhagen.) Within an hour of arrival, we were having coffee and pastries in a Turkish family kitchen. The seventh-floor flat was not opulent, but nor was it uncomfortable. Instinctive eastern hospitality battled with northern reserve and the migrant’s understandable suspicion of the stranger. But it felt like a refuge against an uncertain world.
Down below on the estate, crime is an issue. “It’s easy to get into problems,” says Lulli, a 16-year-old boy from Kosovo. “Fighting, drugs, stealing. But it’s very hard to get out.” However, these problems might seem very low-grade in other cities. People kept telling us, in shocked tones, about the fires started in the wooden buildings used for burning rubbish. The banlieues of Paris and the gun-ridden estates of south London would be delighted to have such troubles.
In Herrgarden, kids from diverse backgrounds do mix. But at schools composed almost wholly of migrants, they find it hard to feel an attachment with wider society. “My passport says I’m Svensk, but in the apartment, no,” says Lulli’s Turkish pal Nihad. “In Herrgarden, if someone has a problem, we help him. The Swedes, they are very cold. They shake hands. We kiss. Not like gays, like brothers.”
Fuelled by resentment against native Swedes, some go into town on a Friday or Saturday night to indulge in a little light mugging of what they call “the Svens”. The police think only about 150 youths are involved. At least these youngsters speak Swedish. For their parents, it can be much harder. Cushioned by social security but imprisoned by linguistic inadequacy, many of the unemployed hardly go out. The migrants are here physically, but many have not made the mental leap.
“It’s OK here,” says Nihad’s father, Sala, who still works in Turkey. “But it’s cold, and it’s not home. Nihad, though, he has more chance.”
Four years after the big arson attack, the Islamic Centre has responded to its own troubles by becoming ever more open. “Everyone can come here, Muslim, Christian, Jewish,” says the centre’s director Bejzat Becirov (from Macedonia), offering coffee and lunch. And at the centre’s elementary school, the 11-year-olds give their verdict on what Sweden means to them. They, at least, are positive. “We have clean water,” says Rayan, from Somalia. “Candy!” cries Hussein, also from Somalia. Then Omar from Lebanon chimes in: “Nice cars!”
The 260 children learn in Swedish, and the girls do the counting in their skipping games in Swedish. I asked one eight-year-old where she was from. “Iraq,” she replied. Several others shouted her down. “Sweden!” they cried. They all learn Islamic studies, but on the door of the classroom is an Olympic-style motif showing five religions interlocking and overlapping: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism.
And this positive mood is reflected among the many Swedes who believe that their charitable impulses have brought them rewards. “Twenty years ago Malmö was a very dull city,” says Julia Janiec, an adviser to the city council’s Social Democratic leaders. “We had almost no restaurants, no bars, no theatre, no university, no young people, no nothing. Now we have a dynamic multicultural city.”
This dynamism is not wholly obvious to a visitor. “There is a lot to see and do in Malmö!” says my map. But number three on its list of attractions is the public library. To an outsider, Scandinavian countries seem much the same. That’s not how the Scandinavians see themselves, however, and 20th century history provided a new and sharp division. In the past hundred years, 25 of the 27 members of the European Union have endured either foreign occupation or home-grown dictatorship. The exceptions are Britain and Sweden.
While Norway and Denmark were under Nazi rule, Sweden maintained neutrality by making unheroic compromises and accommodations. It emerged with some guilt – in part survivor’s guilt, but guilt nonetheless. Its reparation was to set itself up as clergyman to the world: “a moral superpower”.
Sweden opened its door, its wallet and its heart to refugees from the planet’s most traumatised places. There is still a substantial cohort of leftist Chileans opposed to the Pinochet regime in the 1970s. And the list of the most common birthplaces for Malmö’s population is like a reprise of global headlines: Iraq, Bosnia, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Somalia, Croatia.
Other Scandinavians often find the Swedes rather bleak: humourless, pedantic, rulebound, a bit stingy. (Trying to grasp the linguistic differences, I asked a Dane if he could understand a Swedish film. “Oh yes,” he said, “but I’d never watch one.”) I also met a Norwegian, Agnes Domaas. “These newcomers have made Sweden so much better,” she said. “They are so happy. Sweden needs them.”
The poor Swedes have worked so hard to be welcoming, it seems harsh that they get so much criticism. But higher standards apply here. The Swedes did not ask The Guardian to call their country “the most successful society the world has ever known.” But they, and the world, do expect the country’s policies to work, just like the drainage and the electricity.
Yet there is an increasing sense, even on the left, that the combination of Sweden’s welfare and migration policies was foredoomed. The “Swedish model”, often seen as a middle way between communism and capitalism, dates back to the 1930s. The intellectual roots of the policy lie in the concept of folkhem (“people’s home”); scholars have noticed its similarity to the interwar German idea of Volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”). One turned malignant, one did not, but they were grown in similar cultures.
Nick Johnson of Britain’s Institute of Community Cohesion has studied race relations in various multicultural cities. “In both Sweden and Denmark,” he says, “it was very striking that people on the left were saying they hadn’t realised the extent to which their social model was predicated on a strong sense of nationalism. And diversity was starting to open the debate about the kind of society they want.
“Some were thinking that they can only maintain strong support for individuals if they control their borders. They are now facing the problem the UK has wrestled with for years: that of having a permanent ethnic minority underclass...”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008