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STOCKHOLM SUICIDE BOMBING

IMMIGRANT

Sweden’s tolerance ‘at risk’ following attack

While Muslims in Sweden have denounced the country's first suicide bombing, experts warn that Sweden’s far-right may try to exploit the attack in a bid to polarise the nation, AFP’s Rita Devlin Marier explains.

Sweden's tolerance 'at risk' following attack
Tomas Oneborg/SvD (File); Fredrik Persson/Scanpix

A man strongly believed to be Taimour Abdulwahab blew up his car and then himself in a busy shopping quarter of central Stockholm Saturday. He killed only himself, but narrowly missed wreaking havoc among Christmas shoppers.

Abdulwahab had been living in Britain in recent years, where he studied at university, but media reports said he had arrived in Sweden from Iraq as a child, growing up in a small town a three-hour car ride from Stockholm.

The attacks were immediately and widely denounced by Sweden’s Muslim community, with condemnations from many Muslim groups and several small peace protests.

But the clearest message came perhaps on Tuesday, when Hassan Mussa, one of Sweden’s most influential clerics, issued a fatwa — an Islamic ruling — clearly condemning the attack.

“It is forbidden to accept what has happened or try to justify it,” said Moussa.

“Those who accept it or justify it are as guilty as the perpetrator himself,” he added, according to Swedish radio’s translation.

But the fact that a Swedish-raised man blew himself in the name of Islam — as he understood it — has challenged Sweden’s tradition of tolerance, said respected Islamologist Jan Hjärpe.

“This (attack) in Stockholm is used to point to all the Muslims in Sweden and say they are dangerous,” Hjärpe told AFP.

A report released Wednesday by Sweden’s intelligence agency Säpo suggested this kind of extremism was very are: it estimated only about 200 extremists with the potential for violence among the Muslim population.

On that evidence, Hjärpe insisted, they “do not represent the huge majority of the Muslims in Sweden.”

Even the audio message attributed to the bomber, sent out shortly before Saturday’s attack, appeared to acknowledge this lack of radicalism, said Hjärpe.

“You could hear he was quite angry that the Muslims in Sweden were not interested in going into a jihad,” he pointed out.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt while condemning the attack, warned against drawing hasty conclusions, and in his comments he stressed the tolerance that underscores Swedish society.

But Malena Rembe, chief analyst at Säpo’s counter-terrorism unit, warned that this tolerance was increasingly being challenged.

With the far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats entering parliament for the first time after September’s election, the country was moving towards greater polarisation, she cautioned Wednesday.

The increase in Islamophobic rhetoric from the far-right would put Sweden’s tradition for open, tolerant diaologue, under pressure, she warned.

“What we’ve seen in other countries where you have a more polarised debate — where you have more open xeonphobia or Islamophobia — is that it tends to push people into movements because they feel isolated in their own society and they feel included in these extremist environments,” she told AFP.

“An increased polarisation in discussions would perhaps further stigmatise individuals — and stigmatised individuals tend to be recruitable … It is extremely important to ensure a nuanced discussion,” she said.

Just days after Saturday’s attack, the Sweden Democrats called for a parliamentary debate on the problem of Islamic extremism: the other parties rejected the idea, reluctant to let them exploit the situation.

But the reluctance to confront extremist ideas carried its own dangers, said one analyst.

“It’s sort of reflective of the sensitivities of the issues, but also of the consensus nature of Sweden,” security expert Magnus Ranstorp, of Sweden’s defence college, told AFP.

Until recently, even problems surrounding immigration and integration were only marginally debated here, and the far-right’s entry into parliament came as a shock for many people, said Ranstorp, a specialist in Islamist movements.

“By avoiding the debate, you inflate the issues … If you stifle part of the debate it can become more bent up, many issues rolled into one,” Ranstorp said.

“Everyone is tip-toeing around the fire, and therefore you don’t discuss the issue realistically,” he added.

Thus the bomber, despite failing to create the carnage he was aiming for, might have achieved one of his goals.

“I see him as someone who come from the outside (Britain) in here and very deliberately targeted Sweden to create a lot of polarisation, a lot of reaction,” Ranstorp said.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Will the Sweden Democrats play nice or will they seek ‘revenge’?

A row over Swedish public television suggests that the room for compromise between the Swedish Democrats and their partners in a possible new coalition government will be limited, argues David Crouch.

OPINION: Will the Sweden Democrats play nice or will they seek ‘revenge’?

On Tuesday evening, SVT’s flagship news magazine Aktuellt included a seven-minute segment about the Sweden Democrats (SD). They invited Willy Silberstein, head of the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism, and PM Nilsson, the respected political editor of business daily Dagens Industri

This was an example of what TV journalists do all the time – get two sensible people with different views to explain and argue their positions. The approach allows viewers to be exposed to different opinions and make up their own minds.  

Silberstein said it was “frightening” that a party with Nazi roots had so much support in Sweden and expressed a concern that the SD’s strong showing at the polls would encourage racists. 

“I do not mean that the Sweden Democrats in any way call for violence against immigrants, but I think there is a risk that a climate will arise where many people who have racist attitudes feel a greater freedom to say things and possibly also act violently against minorities,” he said.

Nilsson respectfully and sympathetically argued that the SD kick extremists out of the party, and that the experience with similar parties in power in other Nordic countries is that they fail to make any fundamental changes to these liberal democracies. In some ways, it felt like the conversation I had with my Jewish relative that I described in my last column, although Nilsson failed to answer the real fear among ethnic minorities that the election result encourages racists. 

This innocuous bit of television provoked a furious outcry from the Sweden Democrats. Björn Söder, one of the SD’s top leaders and their candidate to become the new speaker in parliament, accused SVT of broadcasting “pure propaganda”. The public service broadcaster should be reported for bias and “fundamentally reformed”, he said.

Barely 48 hours after the polling stations closed, here was the SD with the gloves off, gunning for one of the party’s traditional enemies – journalists. 

In 2016, Linus Bylund, now the party’s chief of staff, called journalists “enemies of the people”. On election night, Bylund joked that he was looking forward to “a lot of what we like to call ‘journalist rugby’” – pushing journalists around, he explained. When Aftonbladet columnist Peter Kadhammar visited the SD stronghold of Hörby in 2020 and asked to read the town council’s official diary – a legal democratic right – two SD goons followed him and sat, arms folded, to intimidate him while he worked.

SD critics of the mainstream media have supporters inside the other right-wing parties that make up the loose electoral bloc that is on the verge of taking power. On Tuesday morning, Gunnar Axen, a venture capitalist and for 16 years a member of parliament for the Moderate party, tweeted: “A piece of advice to the Moderates and SD before the government negotiations regarding ‘public service’: A cancerous tumour is operated on completely, you leave nothing behind because then it starts to grow again.”

Söder’s outburst against the media should be a concern to anyone who consumes journalism in Sweden and relies on journalists to provide them with accurate information on which to lead their lives. But it also raises a bigger issue: to what extent will the party be prepared to compromise in the event that negotiations take place with the three other right-wing parties about forming a new government?

The Financial Times was one of the few foreign media allowed into the SD’s valvaka election vigil party on election night (The Local’s application for press accreditation was rejected). Its reporter Richard Milne wrote: “One word was on the lips of many Sweden Democrats MPs who spoke to the Financial Times: ‘It is revenge,” said Henrik Vinge, deputy leader. Linus Bylund, its chief of staff, added: ‘It is revenge because the other parties have treated us badly — even the three [rightwing] parties on our side.’”

It is easy to forget what it has cost SD politicians personally to get where they are today, and therefore how determined they are to pursue their ideological goals. Leading members have made sacrifices, they were in the movement when it was acceptable to make fun of them and even beat them up. Some have lost their positions or even their jobs for being SD members. Whether you think this was right or not, they have been isolated and bullied by the media and other Swedish institutions.

“These are investments that they have made, and they will not immediately become politically fatigued in negotiations, they are in it for the long term,” one experienced SD-watcher told me this week.

However, the SD have also seen what has happened to other, similar parties in the Nordic countries, and particularly the Danish People’s Party, whose role in propping up a minority conservative government has seen its support fall through the floor.

At the same time, in the municipalities it has controlled, the SD have behaved responsibly and generally stayed away from enacting hardcore policies. Moreover, this approach has seen its share of the vote grow by between 4 and 10 percentage points in all of these towns, which might have taught it that the softly softly approach works.

The election literature I received from my local SD was all about cuddly local issues and mentioned immigration only once – in sharp contrast to the election leaflet from the SD’s national arm.

Will the party take a similar softly, softly approach now it has the chance for power on the national stage, or will it want to show the full extent of its new political power and throw its weight around? If that includes taking revenge on the mainstream political parties and the media, be prepared for fireworks.

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.

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