The Muslim politician who quit Sweden’s Green Party in a storm of controversy last month, after refusing to shake the hand of a woman interviewer, has warned that he has been the victim of an Islamophobic, racist campaign which risks turning Sweden into a divided society.
“There is Islamophobia in Sweden,” said Yasri Khan, who had been a senior member of the Green Party, told Dagens Nyheter in his first major interview since stepping down on April 20th. “I am quite sure I would not have been treated like this if I’d been a white man. I wish that Sweden was more tolerant.”
Khan said he felt it was “a pity” that so many Swedes, including Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, had interpreted his refusal to shake hands with a women as a sign that he was a misogynist who hated women, when he had instead always fought for women’s full inclusion “at all levels” in society.
“For many people it will be a symbolic act. But for me it is a consequence of my faith and my religion, and I have to be respected for who I am,” he said of his reluctance to shake women's hands.
“According to my beliefs, it is an intimate act that I reserve for my close family. It is an expression of respect, but I understand that it may be perceived differently.”
“There is symbolism on the other side as well,” he went on. “This is about my struggle to be allowed to be myself as a Muslim in Sweden. It has been a lifelong struggle for me.”
In the interview Khan refused to identify himself with what he called “white feminism”, which he criticised as a movement “where shaking hands is apparently so important”, but said he felt much in common with “third world feminism”.
He pointed out that two our of the four chairs of Swedish Muslims for Peace and Human Rights, the group he founded, had been women.
Khan said that his treatment over the symbolic gesture went right to the heart of what it meant to be a Muslim in Sweden.
“There’s a debate going about this in the whole of Sweden and we can perhaps decide on what diversity and quality really mean: should everyone drink alcohol, must everyone dye their hair blonde, I mean to say, where does the border lie on how different we can be?”
He warned of a difficult future if Sweden fails to answer the question in the right way.
“We need to show more understanding of each other, believe me. Otherwise, this is not the end. We could end up in a situation similar to France and see the suburbs burn, instead of becoming a harmonious, successful prosperous country.”