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OPINION: El-Haj faced the same dilemma as all immigrant politicians in Sweden

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
OPINION: El-Haj faced the same dilemma as all immigrant politicians in Sweden
The Social Democrat MP Jamal El-Haj has as yet given no indication of whether he intends to stand down. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

When the Social Democrat party cut its ties with its MP Jamal El-Haj on Monday, it showed once again where the limits are for politicians with immigrant backgrounds.

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On the face of it, Swedish politics is commendably open to people with immigrant backgrounds. 

They lead two of the eight parties in parliament: Nooshi Dadgostar, leader of the Left Party, is the child of Iranian refugees and Muharrem Demirok, leader of the Centre Party, has a Turkish father.

They can claim a minister in the current government: Environment Minister Romina Pourmokhtari is the child of political refugees from Iran. And in the previous Social Democrat-led coalitions, they boasted at least six ministers: Ardalan Shekarabi, Ibrahim Baylan, Khashayar Farmanbar, Aida Hadžialić, Mehmet Kaplan, and Alice Bah Kuhnke. 

At my count, slightly over a tenth of current MPs have an immigrant or refugee background, so while immigrants are underrepresented, they are not shockingly so. 

But as El-Haj's dismissal makes clear, there are limits. 

El-Haj has been under fire ever since he attended the European Palestinians Conference, which was held in his home town of Malmö in May. 

The Social Democrats had told him not to go, but El-Haj replied that "there is no power anywhere in the world that could stop me from taking part". 

The party had defended him, but when the Expressen newspaper reported last week that El-Haj had in 2017 personally contacted a case officer at the Migration Agency to try and help the asylum case of Ata Elsayed, an imam who preached at the Skandinaviska Wakf mosque in Malmö, it was the last straw. 

"He has damaged the party," said Social Democrat leader Magdalena Andersson, after the party's branch in Skåne called on El-Haj to stand down as an MP. (He has refused to do so and will sit in the parliament as an independent). 

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The problem for El-Haj is that he was not content with being a Social Democrat MP with a Palestinian background. He has wanted to represent Palestinians.  

This, according to the former Social Democrat MP Nalin Baksi, who was the first Muslim woman to be elected to Sweden's parliament, is "the dilemma for politicans with an immigrant background". 

"You have a mandate representing a political party and are expected to promote that party's policies," she wrote in the Expressen newspaper. "But at the same time, there are expectations from your own ethnic group to engage in their issues. That dilemma becomes even worse if there are expectations from your party, whether openly expressed or not, that you should win votes from that ethnic group". 

As someone representing Palestinians, El-Haj understandably felt he could not miss the single biggest political event of the year for Palestinians in Europe, particularly when it was hosted in his home city. That the event has been linked to Hamas, the government in Gaza since 2007, was not a sufficient obstacle.

"This is about my identity, about my DNA, about my family's existence. Not taking part would have meant betraying myself, my family and the whole Palestinian people," he told Dagens Nyheter in a interview last month. 

But as someone representing the Social Democrats, he should not have gone. 

The story has close parallels to the scandal that forced the Green Party MP Mehmet Kaplan to resign as Sweden's housing minister back in 2016.

Kaplan, who moved from Turkey when he was eight years old, did not just represent the Green Party. He represented Muslims - he had founded the Swedish Islamic NGO Swedish Muslims for Peace and Justice - and was part of the Ship to Gaza movement that tried to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip. 

When he was invited to a dinner organised by the Turkish business network, Tümsiad, he went, putting his role representing people of Turkish origin in Sweden ahead of the Green Party, and he stayed even though the guests included members of Turkish nationalist group Grey Wolves.

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The party leadership defended him, but when a 2009 video surfaced in which he compared Israel's treatment of Palestinians to Nazi persecution of Jews, he resigned. 

Yasri Khan, the Green MP who co-founded Swedish Muslims for Peace and Justice with Kaplan, also ended up resigning over a scandal around his refusal to shake hands with women due to his Islamic beliefs. This is arguably a similar situation. He was putting his role as a representative of Muslims in Sweden over the mandate given to him by Green Party voters.

If you look at politicians with immigrant backgrounds who have succeeded, it's striking how far they sometimes go to distance themselves from their ethnic group's issues. 

Demirok has had to get rid of his Turkish citizenship, Shekarabi sports an eccentric, professorial bow tie. Lawen Redar, the up-and-coming Social Democrat, is a hardliner when it comes to controlled immigration. The ones who are most successful are the ones who seem most culturally Swedish.

Politicians with immigrant backgrounds from elsewhere - such as Christian Democrat leader Ebba Busch, who holds Norwegian citizenship, or Sweden Democrat Richard Jomshof, whose father immigrated to Sweden from Finland in the 1960s - are not subject to this scrutiny to the same extent. Busch was, for example, not met with calls to renounce her Norwegian citizenship when she became leader of the Christian Democrats in 2015.

What unites these five politicians, however, is the fact that they've never tried to represent their immigrant group while serving in parliament.

El-Haj, on the other hand, clearly still has one foot in Palestinian culture.  

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In her article, Baksi remembered how she had reacted, when, shortly after being elected, she went to a meeting of Kurdish Swedes.

"A woman raised her hand, looked encouragingly at me and asked, 'what have you done for the Kurds, and what are you planning to do for the Kurds?'," she wrote. 

"I stared back at her and answered, 'not a damn thing, and I'm not planning on doing anything in the future either'." 

She was, she explained to the woman, a representative of people who wanted Social Democrat policies, not a representative of Kurds. 

For immigrants in Sweden, sidelining part of your identity is the price for participation. 

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Stephan Crandall 2024/02/14 06:16
Nalin Baksi was perfectly correct. Gifts to specific groups becomes populism and populism is destructively divisive. Look at the USA locked in a populist civil war.
Jean Martin 2024/02/12 21:17
Hmmmm. I truly wonder if any jewish Swedish MP - from any party - attended a gathering called something like a "European Jewish Conference", whether the reaction would be the same. Somehow, I strongly doubt it....
Jeremiah 2024/02/12 17:50
I long for Sverige to see the value of multiculturalism. Societies are stronger because of diversity. I know nothing of this situation beyond this reporting. It seems like Mr El-Haj did not damage the party. Mrs Andersson damaged the party by denying Mr El-Haj the ability to be more than one thing. Politicians should engage with all voters in a variety of forums.
Bree 2024/02/12 17:27
Seems more like Swedes don't like brown people than it does concern about representing an identity over political party...
Arne 2024/02/12 16:52
This is an article unpacking a really important issue, so many thanks to Richard and the Local for covering it. More please! But... there is a reason why 'renouncing Norwegian Citizenship' is a non-issue, and it runs so much deeper than being about 'representing Norways issue in parliament'. Here we are so close to 'getting it', but, as always, we don't use the 'r' word in Sweden. Public discourse is all the poorer for it.

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