‘Politicians must follow ‘hijab outcry’ with action’

Numerous public initiatives across Europe in recent weeks suggest that many people have had enough of racist violence and intolerance. Together, they contradict the image that most Europeans openly or tacitly support exclusion on the grounds of race and cultural difference, argues Michael Privot, the director of a Brussels-based anti-racism network.

'Politicians must follow 'hijab outcry' with action'

For instance, thousands of Swedish women from various backgrounds recently posted pictures of themselves with headscarves to show solidarity with a female victim of Islamophobic violence in Stockholm. The initiative inspired similar actions in other places such as Brussels. Lately, acts of public resistance against intolerance have also occurred in Germany and the Czech Republic.

On August 21st in Berlin, neo-Nazi protests against an asylum centre were silenced by hundreds of people expressing their support for the centre and its residents. Moreover, anti-Roma neo-Nazi protesters in the Czech Republic on August 24th faced stiff opposition from both Roma and non-Roma groups.

Further protests against neo-Nazis are planned for September 3rd in front of Czech embassies worldwide.

Such cross-communal actions are encouraging, and prove that many are willing to stand up for the rights of others, regardless of ethnicity and religion. They therefore reflect a sense of unity in diversity.

As Martin Luther King famously said: “If we are to make peace on Earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective” (Georgia, 1967).

Public actions like the “hijab outcry” in Sweden also communicate the need for more political determination to tackle hate crime. So far, politicians in Sweden and Europe have failed to develop effective responses, and there is often an unwillingness to recognize the severity of the problem.

A cause for concern is that Beatrice Ask, the Swedish Minister of Justice, only stressed individual responsibility in the racist attack against the Muslim woman, and ignored the demand of the Swedish campaigners that she tackles structural discrimination in Swedish society.

Equally distressing is that German investigators of the NSU murders did not seriously consider a racist motivation of the crimes, despite the fact that the victims were of a non-German background.

Today more than ever, such shortcomings highlight the widening gap between political leaders living disconnected from the day-to-day reality of the people and the civil society which has developed an understanding of the difficult challenges that lie ahead of us.

Indeed, we should be alarmed by the escalation of hate speech and hate crime. Reports from non-governmental organizations such as European Network Against Racism (ENAR) confirm a dramatic increase of racist violence in recent years.

More than 5,000 hate crimes were reported in Sweden in 2012 of which 7 percent were related to racism and xenophobia. Muslims, Roma, and asylum seekers are some of the most vulnerable groups throughout Europe, especially Muslim women who wear the headscarf.

In France, 86 percent of Islamophobic attacks targeted women in 2012. On August 26th this year, a young Muslim woman in France committed suicide after she was assaulted due to her faith.

The economic distress in Europe has played into the hands of right-wing populists, who spread myths and raise unwarranted fears about immigration and multiculturalism.

What is worse, some politicians actively promote violence towards certain groups, as has frequently been the case in both eastern and western Europe regarding the Roma. In France, politicians on both sides of the political spectrum, including the socialist Minister of Interior Manuel Valls, have attacked the Roma to bolster their visibility and score cheap political points.

When politics and media pander to populism, civil society has a crucial role in defending equality and dignity and reminding politicians of their duty to protect basic human rights. Successful community practices and solutions should also serve as models for politicians when forming inclusion strategies.

Integrated European societies with minimum levels of hate crime cannot be achieved by politicians and lawmakers alone. Civil society initiatives ‘on the ground’ are sometimes the best ways to tap into public sentiment on an issue, communicate and challenge opinions, implement inclusion programmes, and, most important, change public attitudes. They can also stimulate others to act. Consequently, they are indispensable bridges between communities and politicians, and give individuals the chance to have an impact on political decisions beyond their vote.

In a Europe increasingly afflicted by hate speech and racist violence, it is more important than ever to highlight popular commitments to respect and tolerance. Beyond debates and quarrels about the symbol of the hijab, “the hijab outcry” deserves full recognition as an important public and spontaneous initiative against racist violence that managed to cut across ethnic and religious lines.

This is a great sign of hope and resilience of European societies. Hopefully, it will inspire further acts of solidarity in Sweden and the rest of Europe. More public outcries will not automatically lead to respect and tolerance, but may be the most effective way to convince politicians that they have a democratic responsibility to fight exclusion and violence and to protect all members of society.

Michael Privot

Director, European Network Against Racism

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INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.”