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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Opinion: Backlash over Eid well wishes shows the rise of ‘Culture Wars’ in Sweden

Few things agitate the anti-immigration right like the idea that Swedish customs, values and traditions are being undermined (or even replaced) due to the arrival of immigrants from “Other” parts of the world, writes Christian Christensen.

Opinion: Backlash over Eid well wishes shows the rise of 'Culture Wars' in Sweden
Complaints about a politician sending well wishes to Swedish Muslims on Eid show how Sweden is falling victim to so-called 'culture wars', argues our writer. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

The arguments behind the supposed suppression of Swedish traditions are rarely rooted in logic and fact, and almost always rooted in emotion, suggestion and over-simplification.

As the run-up to the 2022 Swedish elections begins to take shape, and as a clear national conservative bloc has developed on the Swedish political right, this component of the “Culture Wars” – the “politically correct”, multicultural Left being accused of undermining national identity – will likely be something that we see more and more.

No incident better crystallises this manufactured conflict than the discussions that took place after the Swedish Foreign Minister, Ann Linde, posted a message to Twitter recently in recognition of the celebrations for the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In the tweet, which included a picture of her holding a tray of baklava, Linde wrote: “Eid Mubarak to all who are celebrating. I hope that you all have a wonderful day with loved ones and that there is lots of baklava on offer!”

For this message, Linde received a significant volume of criticism on social media.

Given that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, Sweden has a significant Muslim population, and the holiday is one of the biggest on the Muslim calendar, one may ask why this tweet would anger some in Sweden?

First, the message of goodwill to Muslims from the Foreign Minister angered many simply because it was made. Nothing more.

When politicians in “Western” nations do anything to validate or normalise the culture or everyday experiences of Muslim citizens, they are regularly accused of undermining “national identity.” For these critics, national identity is a zero-sum-game where praise for Group X immediately means criticism of Group Y. So, when Linde recognised a Muslim holiday, that act was seen as an attack on, and diminishment of, Christian “Swedishness” and culture. It’s an odd line of thinking that suggests that the “national culture” people wish to protect is so weak that even recognising the very existence of other religious cultures is a threat.

This opposition to the celebration of other religious cultures was exacerbated by a second factor: that the end of Ramadan, and Linde’s message, coincided with the Christian religious holiday, Ascension Day. That Linde offered Muslims her wishes, but not Christians, was held up as an example of how Swedish culture was being swamped by alien invaders. 

Now, I’ve lived in Sweden for 15 years, and I cannot remember anyone – let alone a Swedish politician – ever wishing me a “Happy Ascension Day”. Nor can I remember anyone criticising a politician for not wishing citizens a “Happy Ascension Day”. Ascension Day is a national holiday in Sweden best known for giving people a paid day off work to drink and have a barbecue.

But, because Linde chose to recognise what is perhaps the biggest holiday in the Swedish Muslim world rather than what is perhaps one of least well-known holidays in the Swedish Christian world, she was accused of PC pandering. In the manufactured Culture Wars, there is no Christian holiday so small that it should ever take a back seat to even the biggest Muslim holiday. 

In one of the more ridiculous arguments, some critics said that Sweden is a secular country, and the state should not engage in any overt support for religion. You will have to forgive me if I wonder where these critics are when every politician wishes people a “Merry Christmas”. Or, why these critics remain oddly silent when the vast majority of official state holidays in Sweden – giving workers paid days off – are based on Christian holy days. It seems when many people say the state should “remain secular”, what they really mean is the state should avoid recognition of anything other than Christianity, and of Islam in particular.

We may look at this debate and dismiss it as a footnote in the broader Swedish social and political landscape. But that would be a mistake. 

The fight over defining national identity is one that will only become more important as the next election approaches. In recent years, we have seen a number of similar incidents, where the simple everyday lives of minorities living in Sweden have been pitched as proof of the decline and fall of broader Swedish culture. I have written about several of these incidents. A Swedish journalist complaining about not recognising her own country because the only shop open late at night was owned by a foreigner; outrage over a youth soccer tournament in Sweden not serving pork; online attacks against a woman selected to represent her town on a motorway billboard simply because she was veiled. 

As a whole, these seemingly idiosyncratic incidents combine to create a dangerous, unified discourse about which lives are allowed to be part of the fabric of Swedish society, and which are not. While we often focus on the role of the exceptional in art, politics or sports in the formation of national identity, it is the details of everyday life that play a large part in shaping who we are as a society. Recognising things like holidays is a part of that. 

Equating the simple act of wishing citizens of a different religion a happy holiday with a form of betrayal or rejection of identity is to tell those citizens that, no matter what they do, they will never be equals in the Swedish national project. Not exactly a Christian message… or a democratic one.

Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.

Member comments

  1. There are 2 billion Muslims in the world, it’s shocking to learn that some Swedes don’t like the Ramadan or Eid wishes.

    1. Hi Reda! I live in a small town outside of Orlando, Fl with dozens of Churches, but also a Mosque and a Hindu center. Contrary to the images of the dark underbelly in America, we are a tremendously multi-cultural nation. The town council here only restricted the early morning call to prayer at the mosque, and Churches cannot ring bells early either. Except for Native Americans, all other Americans are immigrants from somewhere else. Some Americans forget that, but we are truly a greater nation because of immigrants from all over the world.
      I liked the comment in the article that some Swedes ( and Americans) feel that complementing one culture negates another. Having lived in Sweden, I felt in the late 80’s a growing resentment among Swedes about immigration. I believe the left in Sweden labeled anyone questioning allowing large numbers of immigrants to Sweden racist hurt in the long run. The Sweden Democrats then became the only party in Sweden to challenge the notion of allowing large numbers immigrants in, but their arguments were based on racist tenants. Allowing Swedes to bring up the cost of assimilating immigrants with public housing, job training,etc. is not in and of itself racist. I am pro-immigration here in America, but sadly, so many people in the world live in poverty no nation can open their doors wide open and not expect chaos. I would never try and debate a fellow American about immigration by immediately insinuating having doubts about immigration automatically makes them racist. That would be condescending, and would be counterproductive. Good luck in Sweden. My wife is Swedish, and she thrives here in multi-cultural America. I think Sweden is a fabulous country, and is hopefully going to find a balance with regards to immigration. Swedes are very pragmatic, and I have high confidence in the nation to find a way to live with peace and respect for one another.

  2. Great article, Christian. Thanks! It sums up my POV perfectly, especially the line “It’s an odd line of thinking that suggests that the “national culture” people wish to protect is so weak that even recognising the very existence of other religious cultures is a threat”. The concept of ‘Swedishness’ is far deeper than just watching Kalle Anka every Xmas or sucking the brains out of crayfish in August.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

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

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