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'We don't kidnap children': Why Sweden is worried about a new conspiracy theory

Becky Waterton
Becky Waterton - [email protected]
'We don't kidnap children': Why Sweden is worried about a new conspiracy theory
Protesters in Gothenburg hold signs with slogans including 'Stop kidnapping our children!'. Photo Adam Ihse/TT

Swedish authorities are warning against an ongoing global disinformation campaign which claims that social services routinely 'kidnap' Muslim children in an attempt to secularise them. But what's the context behind this story, and why has it gained such traction?

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Just before the turn of the year, Zeinab Ltaif, a mother-of-six, slammed the Swedish social services in an interview with YouTube channel Shuounislamiya, which is followed by more than 600,000 people.

In the interview, Ltaif discussed ten families in Sweden who, she believes, had their children wrongly taken into care. Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan reports that one of these cases centred on a 13-year-old girl who Ltaif claimed was "kidnapped" and forced to remove her headscarf after she "jokingly" wrote to her teacher that she was abused at home.

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The girl on the other hand told the court that she had been hit by her parents on multiple occasions and that she had wanted to remove her headscarf after living under pressure from her family to wear it, according to court documents seen by the newspaper.

The interview became the starting point of a scattered but global campaign which has united several actors and made headlines in Sweden and beyond in recent weeks. When social media accounts with links to violent Islamist organisations got involved, it prompted Swedish authorities to warn of disinformation, violent threats made against the social services, and a possible risk of terror attacks in their wake.

Zeinab Ltaif at a protest in Gothenburg earlier in February. Photo Adam Ihse/TT

Swedish investigative news site Doku was first to report on the wave of disinformation. Some of the conspiracy stories claim that there is an ongoing systematic assimilation programme of Muslims in Sweden, and some publish the names of individual social service workers.

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“These stories are using words which in Arabic – or in the Muslim culture – are extremely sensitive: kidnapping of children, being placed with paedophiles, forced to eat pork, and even that they are being subject to sexual abuse,” Magnus Ranstorp, counterterrorism and violent extremism researcher at the Swedish Defence University, told The Local.

Ltaif, whose organisation “Mina rättigheter” (“My Rights”) Ranstorp described as a “magnet” for many of these stories, on Saturday organised a protest in the city of Malmö against the work of the social services, the latest in a series of protests which have also been held in Gothenburg and Stockholm. Ltaif has however, tried to distance her campaign from the extreme conspiracy theories.

The Local could not reach Ltaif for comment, but she told Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter in mid-February: “We’re fighting to put a stop to the spread of this disinformation. It’s important to point out that this isn’t just about Muslim children. There are Swedish children, Christian children and non-religious children. We don’t want to Islamise the issue, this is about all children.

“There are lots of people trying to exploit this issue to their advantage. It’s disappointing.”

Who’s involved?

What makes it such a thorny subject, is that real, individual stories from parents who feel discriminated against are also amplified by other actors with a range of different motives.

“There are lots of different streams into this river,” said Ranstorp.

“It has united all the different strands who are opposed to the state and particularly opposed to the social services and this practice of taking children into care.”

In Sweden, he highlights minority-right party Nyans, founded by Mikail Yüksel. In 2018 Yüksel was expelled by the Centre Party over alleged links to Turkish far-right group the Grey Wolves.

Nyans' website features a large section titled “the LVU abuse” – referring to the Swedish Care of Young Persons (Special Provisions) Act. Known as LVU in Swedish, it regulates the circumstances in which social services can take a child into care.

Nyans' party leader Mikail Yüksel at a demonstration against the LVU and social services in Malmö on Saturday. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

“Nyans are now mobilising the immigrant community, that’s why they have such a broad minority agenda,” Ranstorp said, adding that it’s unlikely, but possible, that it will achieve its aims to get into parliament in Sweden’s September election (for which it would require four percent of the vote).

“They’ve been extremely smart identifying that this issue could give them the lift. It’s an us-versus-them issue, this is why they’re polarising like that around this issue. This issue unites all the different ethnicities.”

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‘Two super-influencers’

Alongside this internal dimension, there’s also an external dimension which has given the accusations and conspiracy theories global traction. Ranstorp pinpoints two main sites with millions of followers which he describes as “superspreaders”, who have amplified the issue and conspiracy theories abroad.

Shuounislamiya, an Egyptian site, is one of these. It has made “hundreds of videos about the West”, said Ranstorp. “This site argues that secular values are undermining Islam. It warns against assimilation, and it has honed in on Sweden specifically. It’s almost like a vendetta.”

The other is Abdulla Elshrif, an Egyptian YouTuber with more than four million subscribers. He has a weekly show which is sometimes shown on Qatari state-funded news service Al Jazeera.

“He observes how this is being reported in Sweden and he adjusts his messaging, he’s surveilling Swedish media and provides a counter-narrative to Muslims. These two sites have made it viral, initially, and then it’s taken on a life of its own,” said Ranstorp.

Both of these “superspreaders” warn Muslim families in Sweden to “move away from Sweden, and that those who stay should separate, create Muslim free schools, keep their traditions, they shouldn’t have contact with the social services”, he said.

All of this has created a viral campaign, which has prompted religious leaders in the Arab world to raise the issue. This includes everyone from Muslim Brotherhood leaders, to members of the UN and US Treasury’s terror lists, and powerful religious leaders in Saudi Arabia and Oman.

“This is creating polarisation, there’s so much disinformation, the language used is so emotional and damaging, and is making a lot of immigrants in Sweden who don’t know how the system works really, really scared,” said Ranstorp.

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Like our version of the Mohammed cartoons’

“We’ve had this issue with identity political issues before, like hijabs, it’s come and gone, but now, this is almost like our version of the Mohammed cartoons in Denmark,” Ranstorp said.

The Mohammed cartoons refer to a series of 12 caricatures depicting the prophet Mohammed published in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The cartoons, which were considered highly offensive by many Muslims because portraying the Prophet Mohammed is strictly forbidden in Islam, lead to protests and rioting around the world.

“The complicating factor, which is really the ‘X’ factor in all of this, is that it’s coming at a time where there is a conflict with Ukraine, Russia and Nato. It’s coming at an extremely sensitive time. So there’s also the question of, are there forces trying to amplify this abroad?” said Ranstorp.

A protest in 2006 on Sergels torg, Stockholm, against the Danish Mohammed cartoons. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT/Scanpix

“They’re extremely coordinated: hashtags, the way in which the messaging is the same. It’s creating polarisation between immigrant communities and social services – and all other authorities. It’s a bad situation.”

A situation so bad, that the Swedish Foreign Ministry took to social media in February to strongly reject any claims that children were being “kidnapped” by the Swedish social services.

In a series of tweets, the ministry warned of a disinformation campaign, stating the following: “This information is wrong. It is seriously misleading and aims to create tensions and create mistrust. Swedish social services do not kidnap children. All children in Sweden are protected and cared for equally under Swedish legislation, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

This article is part of an in-depth report by The Local on the disinformation campaign against the Swedish social services. Read part one HERE.

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Anonymous 2022/02/23 11:28
There are clear misinformation drive out there, at the same time, there are clear signs that, some people in Sweden do not trust the social services. This is not good for the country, since this will create instabilities within the communities in the country. The solution is not to blame anyone and find a scapegoat. The solution is to sit on the table and discuss, listen to the grievances and see what they want to say. Just demonizing someone who brings this up does not help, being open to listen to them will bring fruit, as far as I understand.

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