Believers file quietly out of a mosque into the cold night in Rosengård, a neighbourhood at the centre of a heated debate over Sweden’s failure to integrate immigrants amid reports that radical Islamists now control the area.
“How does society expect us to integrate when we are so segregated?” asks Sami Touman, a 21-year-old mechanical engineer student whose family comes from Gaza.
Around 86 percent of the some 22,000 people who live in the towering, grey, 1960s concrete structures that make up the heart of this Malmö suburb in the south of Sweden are first or second generation immigrants.
Traditional Swedish names like Svensson, Larsson and Andersson have gradually disappeared from the metal buzzers, replaced to a large extent by the names of Muslim refugees who have fled conflicts in places like Iraq, Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, Somalia and Afghanistan.
“When I first got here 15 years ago I had Swedish neighbours. Today, there isn’t a single one left,” says Anis, a 33-year-old of Bosnian origin who only gives his first name, as he eats a kebab at the large shopping centre that is Rosengård’s main meeting point.
The neighbourhood found itself in the midst of a media frenzy in December following days of violent clashes between immigrant youths and police, and again in January after a government-commissioned report claimed a small group of radical Islamists had a stranglehold on the area.
“Families who have just moved into the neighbourhood and who have never been particularly religious or traditional claim that they led freer lives in their home country than in Rosengård,” the report said.
Women who did not wear the Muslim headscarf, or hijab, in their home country were for example obliged to don it, according to the study.
The authors also singled out “cellar mosques” which had no link to official Islam and whose ultraradical members serve as a kind of “thought police.”
The report has been met with heavy criticism in Rosengård, where many residents say they do not recognise their neighbourhood in its description.
“No one has ever come up to me and asked: ‘Are you a Muslim? Do you pray five times a day?’,” Touman insists.
Kenneth, a 56-year-old unemployed truckdriver, agrees that Rosengård is basically just your average community.
“Rosengård is a fairly nice neighbourhood. You find everything here, except a Systembolaget,” the state-run liquor store, the ethnic Swede jokes as he sips coffee with a friend at a shopping centre cafe surrounded by oriental stores interspersed with Swedish supermarkets.
“It’s true that we are a minority here, but we don’t really think about it in those terms. We have so many immigrant friends,” he says.
Maxime Camara, who heads the Rosengård’s refugee welcome committee, however laments that increasingly influential Islamic groups have further isolated the already over-populated and under-employed neighbourhood.
While Sweden’s official unemployment rate stands at around seven percent, nearly 40 percent of Rosengård working age residents are jobless.
“A lot of young people here are out of work… Their parents don’t work, and they get their only social interaction in the Islamic milieu, which complicates integration,” says Camara, originally from Guinea.
“They spend their time speaking Arabic,” he says, adding that “at heart they don’t really want to be Swedish. They tell me so themselves.”
Even the imam (preacher) at Rosengård’s largest mosque complains that some immigrant communities here are not as open as they should be to Swedish society.
“That is a problem for us, for Europe, having some communities always looking to the past,” says Bejzat Becirov, who gives his sermons in Swedish.
“So here we are with an Islamic football club and table tennis team,” he adds.
The December riots were sparked by the closure of a Rosengård club belonging to the Islamic Cultural Association of Malmö.
Ammar Daoud, one of the group’s leaders, rejects the criticism against the organisation and maintains the Rosengård report was “unfounded, misleading and racist.”
The racism charges lobbed against the Swedish establishment after the report was published ballooned further following the release in early February of audio tapes of police comments during the December riots in which they referred to immigrant youths as “fucking primitive beasts.”
Media also revealed that during a training course in early 2008, instructors had told police to use the fictitious code names “Neger Niggersson” and “Oskar Neger” (Negro).
Daoud meanwhile insists his group does nothing to hamper integration and instead plays a positive role in Rosengård.
“Does helping children with their homework counter integration efforts?” he asks.
Pernilla Ouis, an expert on Islam in Sweden at Malmö University, however maintains that a heavy Islamic influence makes it more difficult for immigrants to fit in in Sweden.
“The Muslim communities say they want to help, and that’s fine, but their behaviour towards the non-Muslim society is not normal,” she says.
The unrest was therefore in fact a good thing, insists Ouis, a Swedish citizen who herself wore the Muslim headscarf for 18 years.
“What happened this winter has brought attention to the problem that we couldn’t talk about before without being accused of racism,” she says.