‘Immigrants in Sweden are treated as a homogenous, deviant group’

All deviant behavior which does not fit into dominant Swedish social norms is lumped together and attributed to immigrants, writes Salam Zandi, drawing parallels with concepts developed by thinkers such as Edward Saïd.

'Immigrants in Sweden are treated as a homogenous, deviant group'
Photo: Mälardalen University; Mats Andersson/Scanpix

Immigrants in Sweden do not belong to one ethnic linguistic group, nor religious or cultural entity. Despite this fact, many public authorities, politicians, intellectuals and statistical offices treat them as a homogeneous group with defined characteristics.

Some debaters, for instance, write about immigrant girls as a group of girls having a shared problem. Others define immigrant men as having an inherent inability to respect women. Those who define themselves as the bearers of the western values system occasionally imply that immigrants are essentially deficient in their understanding of modernity, western lifestyles or individual integrity.

Furthermore there are others who collectively define immigrants and give them a set of common attributes.

Looking at the issue from the perspective of a discourse analysis we can establish that immigrants in Sweden are transformed into “the others” – in political debates, discussions, articles, texts, pictures and in statistical data. “The others” as in those who are unlike the native Swedes.

Any divergent behaviour or conduct which doesn’t fit into existing Swedish social norms are lumped together and attributed to immigrants. Even when someone, who is himself not a native Swede, tries to display a positive aspect of these “the others”, he or she is unable to liberate him or herself from this framework.

The identity of the “the others”, immigrants, is established and within this framework all positive, negative and neutral notions on immigrants circulate. All conceptualizations of the immigrants take place inside within this. In accordance with the study of logic, it is illogical to reach a verified conclusion by false premises. In order to clarify my thinking, I am not trying here to discuss this issue with terminologies such as xenophobia, nationalism or racism.

The need to define “the others” in order to strengthen a group’s feeling of belonging is a well-known phenomenon and eminently written about within the field of social-anthropology. This is of course also not a uniquely Swedish mindset. What is however possibly unique in Sweden is the dividing line between inclusiveness and exclusiveness.

If you are a coloured person or speak Swedish with an accent it is enough for you to be included into the category of immigrant. It is not enough to be a Swedish citizen and speak Swedish fluently and to be a skilled professional within the state’s apparatus or in the government.

To exemplify I refer to two secretaries of state in the United States, namely Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. It seems that the United States has another approach to the issue. In the US all citizens need to contribute with their competence in order to build the country. All are needed, regardless of the origin or speech articulation.

In the United States a black man with a Kenyan father became president.

The social patterns which are in practice here in Sweden impact not only those citizens born outside Sweden but also for the country as a whole. Citizenship in Sweden is apparently not defined by the law, it is a cultural issue. Swedishness lies in the sphere of mythology and in this sphere neither, logic, time, skill nor the value of equity are given scope. The result of this is social alienation, a development which is being fought by politicians.

In my opinion, in view of this kind of inclusive/exclusive reasoning, immigrants remain immigrants forever, while the native Swedes inherit their Swedishness.

The almost comical debates prompted by the publication of data published by The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) regarding the higher representation of immigrants in certain crimes committed in Sweden, illustrate the pathetic nature of the attempts of some groups to create “the others” in Sweden.

Salam Zandi is a Swedish academic affiliated with Mälardalen University.

This article was originally published in Swedish on the Newsmill opinion website. English translation by Salam Zandi/The Local

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.


Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.