What the other scandal at Radio Sweden says about failed integration

Richard Orange worked across the corridor from Radio Sweden's Arabic division for nearly a year and was horrified by the way journalists' talents were wasted.

What the other scandal at Radio Sweden says about failed integration
Radio Sweden's journalists primarily do Arabic versions of the main news stories on Ekot. Photo: Screen grab

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. 

Member comments

  1. I can understand the frustration and even anger expressed in the article, but may I venture to say that the situation described is more or less the same, to varying degrees, across the whole of Europe and is hardly unique to Sweden. It is indeed frustrating, with stories for example of doctors who are qualified in their home country, taking menial jobs in Sweden because of poor language proficiency which makes it difficult to become Swedish equivalent-qualified and even downright dangerous if the doctor and patient don’t understand each other properly. Part of the huge corona/covid problem in homes for the elderly in early 2020 was apparently due to the poor or almost non-existent Swedish-language proficiency of some of the staff, who quite simply didn’t understand the new pandemic prevention measures and who couldn’t communicate properly with the elderly residents.

    The article mentions journalists and I’ve mentioned doctors, but of course there are many other professions where immigrants are unable to use their expertise and knowledge due either to language problems or the absence of Swedish-equivalent qualifications. It’s an irritating but very complex situation.

    As for working regular daytime hours and sitting down for some food at home after work, I honestly can’t see what the alternative could be. It might sound boring, but most Europeans live a very similar life pattern as here in Sweden, with only relatively small local variances. Cafés and restaurants buzzing at midnight every day of the week sounds great fun when on holiday, but it just doesn’t exist in northern Europe apart from perhaps in certain districts of major cities. The lifestyle of the Arab world and southern Spain and indeed other southern European countries is mostly due to their subtropical climate and subsequent traditions and has nothing to do with immigration.

    There is a Swedish expression “ta seden dit man kommer” which roughly translates to “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” which indeed can also be applied across the whole of Europe. One needn’t take it too literally, but surely it basically means that one tries within reason to follow the way of life, traditions and laws of the country that one has adopted. And of course it still allows you to eat food prepared in the way you prefer, practice your religion, play music and watch films from your home country, and much more. One says that it takes two to dance the tango, and the huge problem of segregation and integration in Sweden needs both sides to make their contribution.

    Finally, the Radio Sweden story is a bit of a mystery. Translation errors can unfortunately be easily made, particularly under stress or with simultaneous interpreting. But Radio Sweden had time to have their translations double-checked before distribution. They have a massive budget now that the licence fee is mandatory as part of our annual tax declaration. And according to press reports, the Islamist vs Muslim error was made in three different languages, which can only add to the conspiration theories of whether the error was made deliberately.

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OPINION: We should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality

As Sweden prepares to join Nato, we should mourn the gradual passing of a neutral voice in global affairs, says David Crouch

OPINION: We should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality

In the spring of 1999, Russia’s prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, was on a plane to Washington for talks, just as Nato announced airstrikes on Serbia. The bombing campaign, aimed at halting Serb attacks on Kosovo Albanians, targeted Russia’s Slav and Orthodox ally. On receiving the news, Primakov turned his plane around in mid-air and flew back to Moscow. 

This was the first major confrontation between East and West since the end of the Cold War. Russian public opinion swung overwhelmingly behind the Serbs. Moscow liberals warned the conflict would lead swiftly to “a strongly anti-Western, Cold War-oriented regime”. Vladimir Putin became prime minister that summer. And the rest is history. 

This was “blowback” for Nato – the unintended adverse consequences of a foreign policy intervention. This week, Putin is experiencing blowback himself following his invasion of Ukraine, with Sweden rushing headlong to join Nato, whose actions helped unite Russia so suddenly against the West a quarter of a century ago. 

Joining Nato brings down the curtain on a remarkable period in Swedish and European history. The last time the country declared war was in 1810 against the British. Not a single shot was fired, and peace was declared again two years later. Since then, Sweden has pursued a policy of neutrality in all armed conflicts. 

That era ended on Monday. The government confirmed what everyone knew already – that it would apply to join Nato.  

During the Cold War, neutrality gave Sweden the freedom to manoeuvre between the two blocs led by Moscow and Washington. Sweden joined widespread condemnation of the Soviet suppression of Czechoslovakia’s democratic uprising in 1968. 

But its emblematic leader Olof Palme also backed the global movement against the Vietnam war, hosting a tribunal in Stockholm that symbolically put the USA on trial for war crimes in Indo-China. Here was a nation that had found a middle way between capitalism and communism, it seemed, with a diplomatic as well as an economic dimension. 

Sweden became a leading voice against nuclear weapons. Successive leaders pushed for a nuclear-free zone in the Nordic and Baltic regions. Sweden’s self-image was of a “humanitarian superpower”, its independence on the world stage spilling over into anti-colonialism and feminism.

Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Sweden sought to make the most of the “peace dividend” offered by the end of the Cold War, closing military bases, ending conscription and slashing defence spending. By 2012 the head of the armed forces admitted Sweden could withstand a limited attack for only about a week

All this is now behind us. The middle way is to become the Nato way. Sweden may continue to object to nuclear weapons, but it has opted for the US nuclear umbrella to ensure its security. It may continue to champion liberal causes, but it will have to bite its tongue as its allies with conservative Nato states such as Hungary and Turkey, not to mention the possibility of a second Trump presidency in the US. 

Beyond the immediate concerns about Russian intentions in Ukraine, Sweden is contributing to the return of a polarised world. The optimism and hope heralded by the collapse of communism 30 years ago have turned out to be a chimera. New generations will grow up in fear of the enemy and in the shadow of nuclear annihilation. In these bleak circumstances, we should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality in global affairs. 

It is unfortunate that Sweden’s historic pivot is taking place with unseemly haste. While public opinion has clearly shifted in favour of Nato since the invasion of Ukraine, the majority in favour is still relatively slim and is based on fear rather than thoughtful and thorough debate. In a poll at the end of April, 55 percent of Swedish men but only 41 percent of women said yes to Nato. There are signs that opposition to Nato among the young may actually be growing.

But the decision to join Nato is a minor tremor rather than an earthquake. While Sweden may have been non-aligned, it has not been neutral for a long time. 

Sweden’s pro-Western orientation during the Cold War was an open secret on both sides. As early as 1954, Sweden signed a top secret agreement with the US regarding collaboration and intelligence sharing, including spying on Russia, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed. Sweden already makes “particularly significant contributions” to the alliance, Nato says. Accession to the European Union in 1995 came at the cost of the abolition of neutrality as a principle. 

In this sense, joining Nato means Sweden is now shedding its mask of neutrality, rather than adopting a radically new stance.

Sweden in Nato means the post-Cold War era is emphatically over. The world is entering a new and unsettling phase. “Peace, love, Woodstock, Kumbaya, let’s dramatically slash defence spending and enjoy the peace dividend — that’s all over,” said Estonia’s president after Russia annexed Crimea. 

The point of any nation’s defence policy should be to provide its population with a secure space for peace, love and Kumbaya. There is an almost giddy excitement in much of the Swedish media about Nato membership. As we progress towards our armour-plated future, let’s not forget what we have lost.

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