‘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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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.


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