A few years ago, I worked next door to the Arabic division at Sweden’s public radio broadcaster SR — whose journalists recently caused a media scandal in Sweden for mistranslating “Islamists” as “Muslims” in a string of news stories.
I, too, was shocked by the journalism they were doing.
But it wasn’t that they were bad journalists: some had been successful TV, radio and print reporters before coming to Sweden; one won a literary award for his comic novel on the nightmare of trying to find a place to live in Stockholm; many have since jumped over to the Swedish-language division and won acclaim.
No, what shocked me was the way their employer blockheadedly failed to use them to do any real reporting. Swedish public radio has a team of perhaps 50 journalists, speaking Arabic, Somali, Persian, Dari, English, and two dialects of Kurdish.
It’s an extraordinary resource, which the leadership could send out to do bottom-up story-gathering, to find out what was really happening within their communities, to represent them, and reflect a real, nuanced picture back to the nation.
Instead, their job (like ours on the English division) was essentially to just translate the news from Ekot, Sweden’s main news bulletin, and, if possible, to interview Arab speakers who were affected — berörda, in SR parlance.
Sometimes, a journalist or producer from Ekot, or another part of SR dropped in for help with a story involving Arab, Kurdish, Somali or Dari speakers. But this was always on a subject the Swedish journalist already “knew” affected people in the community: topics such as living in Sweden without residency, crime, the various struggles or failures of integration.
It was such a waste.
For me, this is symptomatic of the bewildering lack of curiosity Sweden has shown more generally towards non-Western immigrants ever since they began to arrive in large numbers in the 1980s. No one has asked them who they are, what they want, or how they want to live.
Just as SR assumes that the role of its Arabic division should be to feed Arab speakers a standard-issue news diet, Swedish society assumes that all new arrivals want the same things they do: an 8 to 4 job with a kollektivavtal, membership of a sports club, home by 5pm to tuck into korv stroganoff with the family, letting loose once a month on the payday weekend.
No one considers that in most cities in the Arab world, as in southern Spain, cafés and restaurants are buzzing at midnight every day of the week.
This is as much a problem on the political left as on the right. How many non-Arab Social Democrat municipal councillors would be able to tell you anything about the differences between Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, or Lebanese cultures? How many could name a single Arab pop star or actor?
The left in Sweden doesn’t really believe in culture at all. The Swedish system, the tax agency, the labour market agency, personal numbers, collective bargaining, the whole incredible, productive machine the Social Democrats constructed over 40 years of unbroken rule, for the left, this is simply rational. Immigrants are seen as low-skilled labour that given the right schooling and training, can be fed into the system with the same result as with any other low-skilled labour. Culture is irrelevant. If you don’t get the expected result, that means you need to invest more in schooling and training to improve the input. There are no cultural differences to which the system must adapt.
The right, particularly the populist right, does believe in culture, but shows just as little curiosity, focusing only on the most narrow, obvious and superficial differences: religion, not eating pork, headscarves, the call to prayer. It’s a picture I don’t recognise at all from the people I meet every day in Malmö.
The Radio Sweden scandal came after Ebba Busch, the leader of the Christian Democrats asked, after riots had swept Sweden over Easter, why, rather than 100 injured policeman, there were not “100 injured Islamists”. Was she privy to police intelligence on the presence of Islamic militants at the riots? Of course not. So what did she really mean? For her (or perhaps just for her intended audience) the borderline between “Muslim” and “Islamist” is pretty hazy, and that reflects a broader ignorance about what concerns and motivates first and second-generation immigrants in Sweden.
The UK and France aren’t liberal paradises. Boris Johnson’s government just floated a plan to send refugees to Rwanda, and France nearly voted in Marine Le Pen as president. But my feeling is that both are much more culturally literate than Sweden. Perhaps this is a consequence of our colonial histories. Second and third-generation immigrants in Paris and London have more space to express their cultures, to adapt parts of the cities to their ways of life. Their lives and experiences are reflected in much more varied ways on film, TV series, in literature.
There’s a sense bubbling beneath the surface in Sweden that the immigrants who have come over the last 30 years are ungrateful guests. “We built this amazing society, the most modern, enlightened economic system in the world,” is the attitude. “We let you come here to use it, and you messed it up.”
But being a generous host doesn’t stop at sending out an invitation. Sweden is a bit like someone who invites a newcomer to dinner, shows them around the house, points them to the food on the table, and then locks themselves away in their bedroom for the rest of the night, leaving their guest alone. The country has shown them no interest, made no efforts to make them feel at home.
Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has pledged to “leave no stone unturned” in the fight against segregation and failed integration. But I see little sign that this involves approaching first and second-generation immigrants themselves and asking them what they want or can contribute, or, indeed, the slightest bit of introspection.