On August 19th, local politician and human rights activist Robert Hannah came out of the closet in dramatic fashion by publishing an article in the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper with the headline “From now on I will be myself”.
The article made waves as it was not only a personal story about his decision to come out as a homosexual, but also a public denouncement of the honour culture still prevalent in some parts of the Assyrian immigrant culture in which he was raised. Since then, the waves have become stronger as both support for and the attacks on Hannah have grown in intensity. His article exposed Sweden’s sensitive nerve of political correctness for what it really is: a self-imposed straight jacket.
Since he went public and shared his experiences as a gay man living under the moral oppression of the Assyrian honour culture, it seems the strongest criticism he has faced has come from within the ranks of Sweden’s left-wing progressives. He has been accused of feeding xenophobia, abusing rhetorical techniques to “win a debate” and of using his own personal experiences as scientifically unsound evidence for making generic statements about immigrants. In short he has been accused of playing straight into the hands of the extreme right.
Ironically enough, this almost Pavlovian reaction by the politically correct establishment is reminiscent of a mantra employed by former US President George W. Bush which later became known as the Bush Doctrine: you’re either with us or against us.
It denies the reality that the world of immigration and integration is not black and white but one with at least 50 shades of grey. Worse than that, it prevents an open and honest debate about the challenges of integration. These challenges are not only about honour violence, women’s rights, and individual freedoms. They also include language training, housing, and social integration, just to name a few. And the solution cannot be one; they must be many, taking into account the vast array of talents, skills, and backgrounds of immigrants of all different kinds.
Sweden is rightfully proud to see itself as a role model in the EU when it comes to immigration and asylum policies, as proven by its recent decision to grant permanent residency to all Syrian asylum seekers. But if Sweden wants to avoid falling into the Dutch-Danish trap of a political backlash by the extreme right, the country’s pundits, papers, and politicians must shed their blanket of political correctness and acknowledge that a high number of non-western immigrants also brings with it the increased potential for cultural clashes.
It is not Hannah who plays into the hands of the far-right, it is the fear among the main political parties of being labelled “politically incorrect”.
Integration and immigration will be one of the main political issues in the coming decades. Yet in
Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven’s “vision article” published recently in DN, it was painfully absent. Meanwhile, the government of Prime Minister Reinfeldt seems more focused on the macro-economy, giving the impression that the leadership of the Moderate Party considers “growth” a goal in itself instead of an instrument to achieve well-being.
By consciously avoiding the topic of “immigration and integration”, the main political parties are directly guilty of contributing to feelings of socio-economic insecurity amongst a part of the electorate. If they want to know why the far-right and anti-immigration Sweden Democrats reached an all-time high of 12 percent in a recent opinion poll, they don’t need to hire a consultant, they need to look in the mirror.
The main political parties’ failure to come up with a comprehensive integration agenda that addresses not only the need for immigration but also the challenges that come with it gives those who are unhappy in the current socio-economic climate only one alternative.
Hannah’s courageous article has opened the door for an honest debate on integration. Let’s hope that in this year upcoming year of elections (European Parliament in May, Sweden’s Riksdag in September) Sweden’s political leaders have the courage to follow him through it.
Ruben Brunsveld is the Director of the Stockholm Institute for Public Speaking (StIPS), which offers training in Intercultural Communication, Public Speaking & Negotiation Techniques