‘What do the Sweden Democrats want to do with us Muslims?’

Anna Waara, chairperson of Swedish Muslims for Peace and Justice, calls for politicians and the media to reject in the strongest possible terms the views expressed in an opinion piece by Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, in which he refers to Muslims as the greatest threat to Sweden since World War II.

It is a very worrying development that the Sweden Democrats now think it possible to score political points through the open use of the same kind of rhetoric used to denigrate Jews in the 1940s. The party feels comfortable propagating pure lies in an opinion piece that’s out there for all to see; their calculation is that this won’t be a problem, since they assume that antipathy toward Muslims will predominate in the public debate.

When it comes to the view of Muslims in today’s society, the apparent dehumanization and total lack of nuance lead to a situation in which Muslims are viewed as an inordinately terrifying phenomenon. This is driven home by the fact that the Sweden Democrats’ frontal attack is met by a deafening silence from the country’s otherwise so vociferous leader writers.

The Sweden Democrats have a right to express themselves, and should preserve that right, but in a democratic society there is nothing forcing people to listen. Freedom of expression is an important foundation, which enables people to take a stance on the kind of society they want Sweden to become.

What’s surprising is that the media establishment has received the Sweden Democrats’ views with a sense of calm. The party’s message contains errors that are misleading or, in some cases, consist of pure propaganda. Despite this, a lot of what they say is permitted to pass without critical examination, vocal protests, or sober counter-argumentation. This offers a snapshot of the current societal climate with regard to Muslims and Islam.

What the Sweden Democrats portray is an enemy within, in a society they wish to divide into “us against them”. Such views have never led to a healthy, peaceful society, and Åkesson’s propaganda represents a direct threat to the 200-year tradition of peace we have here in Sweden.

It would be particularly troubling if the established parties were to replicate the Sweden Democrats’ rhetoric, providing succour to this sort of propaganda. We have seen it before in Europe – in Srebrenica for example, where 7,000 to 8,000 Muslims were murdered simply because of their identity. This happened just fifty years after the Holocaust: the kind of outrage that was never supposed to happen again.

There’s a risk that Islamophobia and intolerance will become established and accepted in Sweden. Is that really the kind of society we want to live in?

A major Gallup poll thought to represent the opinions of 90 percent of the world’s Muslims has shown that 93 percent are against acts of violence. None of the 7 percent who did not respond that they were opposed to violence cited religious reasons. They made reference instead to political reasons, such as achieving freedom from oppression. This is the same freedom considered so fundamental to Western values.

The study also supports the view that young Muslims, contrary to what Åkesson might claim, do not want extremism, fanaticism or violence; instead they strive for freedom, rights and democratization. The survey also showed that Muslims view Islam as a religion that confers on them a sense of meaning, direction, purpose and hope.

Swedish Muslims for Peace and Justice (Svenska Muslimer för Fred och Rättvisa) is Sweden’s first Muslim peace organization. Our aim is to be one of the foremost organizations promoting peace and security in Sweden and Europe, based on justice, Islamic principles, and human rights. With this in mind, we have previously invited the Sweden Democrats to debate with us; we have engaged in a dialogue with them because we believe in talking to those with dissenting opinions. We believe in a society characterized by diversity, which is why we find the Sweden’s Democrats’ rhetoric so frightening.

The party openly displays its defiance towards Swedish values such as respect and tolerance. It is extremely important going forward that the established parties do not slip under the net and co-opt the views the Sweden Democrats are trying to propagate, rather than countering them. The Sweden Democrats want to create the kind of society that can not be achieved by peaceful means in light of the prevailing conditions in multicultural Sweden. It is with this in mind that their election promise to do all they can to create a uniform Sweden raises so many critical issues. Just what do the Sweden Democrats want to do with us Muslims?

The question brought to a head by Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats is that of the kind of society we want to live in. I am certain that I don’t want to live in a society pervaded by opinions that are laced with hatred, ignorance and intolerance, and in which not all individuals are permitted to feel safe – regardless of who the messenger might be. What kind of society do the Sweden Democrats want to live in?

Anna Waara’s article first appeared in Swedish on October 21st in Svenska Dagbladet, an “independently liberal-conservative” newspaper (see link below)


How the Sweden Democrats grew even in their most turbulent stronghold

Sweden Democrat rule in the country town of Hörby has been so turbulent it's a little like Trump's America in miniature. And yet in this month's election, the party grew its share of the vote by four percentage points anyway. What does its success say about the far-right party nationally?

How the Sweden Democrats grew even in their most turbulent stronghold

There have been allegations of tax avoidance, tough policies for migrants, inappropriate drunken nakedness, and a mass departure of civil servants. There have been complaints of a biased media and an entrenched “deep state” resisting every effort to reform. 

The four years of Sweden Democrat rule in the Swedish municipality of Hörby have seen, if not all then at least a bit of, the drama of Donald Trump’s America, played out in and around a country market town of 15,000 people.

Yet when the Sweden’s Democrat’s performance was put to the vote, it raised its share of the vote here by four percentage points, winning an impressive 39 percent. 

“We were shrieking with joy. This was something we could only dream of,” says Cecilia Bladh in Zito, the town’s Sweden Democrat mayor, when The Local meets her in her office, which is decorated with black and white photos of horses being traded at long-gone country fairs.

Hörby, a 40-minute drive northeast of Malmö in the Skåne countryside, was one of four towns the populist Sweden Democrats controlled at the time of Sweden’s general election two weeks ago. This month, it grew its share of the vote between three and ten percentage points in every one.

“We are very, very happy about the trust that we got from our voters,” Bladh in Zito continues. “I strongly believe that [it’s because] the way we are dealing with questions is very real. It’s reality-based political issues. We have both our feet on the ground, and we listen to our voters and the people here in the municipality. What do you need, what do you want?”

The party has managed to keep open the small schools in the villages surrounding the town, which there had been plans to close and consolidate. 

“We said, ‘no, no, no, no way’, because if we take away the countryside schools, the countryside will die out or later,” she says.

It has hired security guards for the city centre, and cut the amount of spending on social welfare by a quarter, she claimed.  

“For the fourth year in a row now, we are increasing safety here in Hörby, so we have less problems now than we had before,” she boasts. 

Cecilia Bladh in Zito, the mayor of Hörby, holds a press conference about the fire in the town. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Bladh in Zito and her team have certainly shaken things up, imposing a new organisational structure on the municipality. “We are driving through real change from the ground up, changing the way we look at costs, and changing a lot of the steering documents,” she says.

The SD-led council has tried to halve the municipal budget for “mother-tongue education”, where children with foreign backgrounds are given an hour’s teaching each week in their home language. It has stopped the gay pride rainbow flag from being flown on municipality buildings. It has scrapped an ambition to be “fossil-free by 2020”, and also claims to have slashed the budget for social benefits by a quarter, again by tightening rules for immigrants.

Someone has taped a pride flag to the sign at the entrance of Hörby municipality as a protest. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

But it may be that people in Hörby voted for the far-right party itself more than for what it did in the town. 

“I think it’s a protest, a protest against those who sit and rule the municipality, who haven’t been listening to the problems people on the ground are facing, and anyway and there’s no one who could do it better,” says 81-year-old Kerstin, as she drags her shopping in a wheeled bag across one of the town’s two central squares.

She voted for the party both in 2018 and again this year because of what she sees as the complacency of the established parties.

The party grew its share of the vote in nearly nine out of every ten municipalities across Sweden, gaining both in its heartlands here in Skåne, and in the northern regions of the country traditionally dominated by the Social Democrats.

READ ALSO: What have the Sweden Democrats proved in four years of municipal rule? 

It overtook Sweden’s former farmer’s party, Centre, as the most popular party among agricultural workers, a trend that is likely to be seen Hörby, which is at the centre of some of Sweden’s best agricultural land. 

But as in Trump’s America, the party’s success has divided communities, with Hörby no exception.

“It’s completely crazy that so many people here vote for them,” complains Johan Tinné, co-owner of the central Café Innegarden, who puts the party’s growth down to gang shootings in Sweden’s big cities rather than the performance of Bladh in Zito and her team.

When asked if friends and family also vote for the party, he shakes his head. “The day they start voting for SD, I’ll end all my contact with them.”

Even supporters like Kerstin have misgivings: “There have been stories that haven’t been so nice, but they’ve ridden it out.”

First Stefan Borg, the party’s group leader, withdrew his candidacy for mayor after the activist magazine Expo revealed that he had been spreading pro-Russian propaganda, writing posts about “the last generation of Swedes” and “the great replacement”, and making homophobic statements on social media. Bladh in Zito then stepped in. 

Both Borg and Bladh in Zito are strangely cosmopolitan figures for small-town Swedish politics, and both have a connection to Russia (albeit only a slight one in her case). 

After retiring from his career as a fighter pilot, Borg spent years in Russia learning the language, and told The Local in 2018 that he made his living as “a translator of Russian religious philosophy in the tradition of Dostoevsky”.

Bladh in Zito grew up in the town but spent her 20s and 30s working as a consultant and energy executive in Stockholm, Germany and Rome. According to her LinkedIn profile, she studied in 2000 at Saint Petersburg Electrotechnical University. 

At the start of 2020, seven unions representing civil servants, teachers and other municipal workers raised the alarm after a mass departure of top civil servants, and reports of a bullying culture.

“It’s a very toxic environment,” Maria Westlund, chief health and safety representative for the Saco union told the Telegraph. “The working environment has been hostile: People don’t get information shared with them, they get left out of emails. People talk crap about them when they’re not there. They’re not included in meetings.” 

Renaldo Tirone, leader of the local Social Democrats, accuses the mayor of “ruling by fear”.

But when the struggle was raging, Borg dismissed it in a Facebook post: ”What’s happening is an attempt by the Deep State, through the unions, to take back political power in Hörby.”

Bladh in Zito argues that it was a good thing that civil servants left the municipality if they were opposed to the structural reforms or didn’t want to enact the ruling parties’ plans. 

“Some people said, ‘ok, I don’t want to work in the new organisation’ because they had lost a title, or maybe even lost some power. That’s fine. That’s understandable. That’s very normal. The other thing is that we had some civil servants at the beginning, who said, ‘we don’t want to work in a municipality where the Sweden Democrats are the rulers. We don’t want to work there’.”

She claims, however, that over the four years as a whole, the churn among council civil servants has not been larger than at other comparable municipalities. 

Then the civil servant in charge of the municipality’s social services had to resign after a naked swimming incident at a staff social event.

Most recently, this June, the Aftonbladet tabloid accused Bladh in Zito of paying Polish builders at least 2.5 million kronor in cash to avoid tax when renovating her historic house in the town centre. She claims her Italian ex-husband handled the payments.

She says that her ex-husband, who is conveniently nowhere to be found, was responsible for paying for the renovation, so she can’t say anything about how the builders were paid. But anyway, she claims, she is the victim of a biased left-wing media, with the journalist behind the story “as far left as you can go”. 

“They do not want Sweden Democrats to have the power, and they’ve been trying for four years, even before I was elected, to kick us out,” she says. “They asked my former employers if I did something wrong, they’ve been pushing me politically for three and a half years, and now, because they couldn’t find anything in my professional or political life, they going after my private side.”

For Westlund, Bladh in Zito’s refusal to answer detailed questions about the renovation, like her refusal to work closely with unions, are signs of a worryingly closed and secretive approach.

“They don’t answer the press, they don’t answer when other parties ask them things. They just keep everything quiet,” she says. “I feel like it’s not a democracy anymore.”

Bladh in Zito, on the other hand, thinks the party’s local gains have proven that it can rule responsibly.

“There will always be people who don’t like us, we can never change that,” she says. “But I hope they understand that we don’t bite, we are not neo-Nazis, we are not fascists, and we are not racists. We are a party which has reality-based political views.”
“We’ve done very well in all our four municipalities, and I hope that can give the Moderates the bravery to start cooperating with us at a national level.”