SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

OPINION & ANALYSIS

Opinion: Backlash over Eid well wishes shows the rise of ‘Culture Wars’ in Sweden

Few things agitate the anti-immigration right like the idea that Swedish customs, values and traditions are being undermined (or even replaced) due to the arrival of immigrants from “Other” parts of the world, writes Christian Christensen.

Opinion: Backlash over Eid well wishes shows the rise of 'Culture Wars' in Sweden
Complaints about a politician sending well wishes to Swedish Muslims on Eid show how Sweden is falling victim to so-called 'culture wars', argues our writer. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

The arguments behind the supposed suppression of Swedish traditions are rarely rooted in logic and fact, and almost always rooted in emotion, suggestion and over-simplification.

As the run-up to the 2022 Swedish elections begins to take shape, and as a clear national conservative bloc has developed on the Swedish political right, this component of the “Culture Wars” – the “politically correct”, multicultural Left being accused of undermining national identity – will likely be something that we see more and more.

No incident better crystallises this manufactured conflict than the discussions that took place after the Swedish Foreign Minister, Ann Linde, posted a message to Twitter recently in recognition of the celebrations for the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In the tweet, which included a picture of her holding a tray of baklava, Linde wrote: “Eid Mubarak to all who are celebrating. I hope that you all have a wonderful day with loved ones and that there is lots of baklava on offer!”

For this message, Linde received a significant volume of criticism on social media.

Given that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, Sweden has a significant Muslim population, and the holiday is one of the biggest on the Muslim calendar, one may ask why this tweet would anger some in Sweden?

First, the message of goodwill to Muslims from the Foreign Minister angered many simply because it was made. Nothing more.

When politicians in “Western” nations do anything to validate or normalise the culture or everyday experiences of Muslim citizens, they are regularly accused of undermining “national identity.” For these critics, national identity is a zero-sum-game where praise for Group X immediately means criticism of Group Y. So, when Linde recognised a Muslim holiday, that act was seen as an attack on, and diminishment of, Christian “Swedishness” and culture. It’s an odd line of thinking that suggests that the “national culture” people wish to protect is so weak that even recognising the very existence of other religious cultures is a threat.

This opposition to the celebration of other religious cultures was exacerbated by a second factor: that the end of Ramadan, and Linde’s message, coincided with the Christian religious holiday, Ascension Day. That Linde offered Muslims her wishes, but not Christians, was held up as an example of how Swedish culture was being swamped by alien invaders. 

Now, I’ve lived in Sweden for 15 years, and I cannot remember anyone – let alone a Swedish politician – ever wishing me a “Happy Ascension Day”. Nor can I remember anyone criticising a politician for not wishing citizens a “Happy Ascension Day”. Ascension Day is a national holiday in Sweden best known for giving people a paid day off work to drink and have a barbecue.

But, because Linde chose to recognise what is perhaps the biggest holiday in the Swedish Muslim world rather than what is perhaps one of least well-known holidays in the Swedish Christian world, she was accused of PC pandering. In the manufactured Culture Wars, there is no Christian holiday so small that it should ever take a back seat to even the biggest Muslim holiday. 

In one of the more ridiculous arguments, some critics said that Sweden is a secular country, and the state should not engage in any overt support for religion. You will have to forgive me if I wonder where these critics are when every politician wishes people a “Merry Christmas”. Or, why these critics remain oddly silent when the vast majority of official state holidays in Sweden – giving workers paid days off – are based on Christian holy days. It seems when many people say the state should “remain secular”, what they really mean is the state should avoid recognition of anything other than Christianity, and of Islam in particular.

We may look at this debate and dismiss it as a footnote in the broader Swedish social and political landscape. But that would be a mistake. 

The fight over defining national identity is one that will only become more important as the next election approaches. In recent years, we have seen a number of similar incidents, where the simple everyday lives of minorities living in Sweden have been pitched as proof of the decline and fall of broader Swedish culture. I have written about several of these incidents. A Swedish journalist complaining about not recognising her own country because the only shop open late at night was owned by a foreigner; outrage over a youth soccer tournament in Sweden not serving pork; online attacks against a woman selected to represent her town on a motorway billboard simply because she was veiled. 

As a whole, these seemingly idiosyncratic incidents combine to create a dangerous, unified discourse about which lives are allowed to be part of the fabric of Swedish society, and which are not. While we often focus on the role of the exceptional in art, politics or sports in the formation of national identity, it is the details of everyday life that play a large part in shaping who we are as a society. Recognising things like holidays is a part of that. 

Equating the simple act of wishing citizens of a different religion a happy holiday with a form of betrayal or rejection of identity is to tell those citizens that, no matter what they do, they will never be equals in the Swedish national project. Not exactly a Christian message… or a democratic one.

Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.

Member comments

  1. There are 2 billion Muslims in the world, it’s shocking to learn that some Swedes don’t like the Ramadan or Eid wishes.

    1. Hi Reda! I live in a small town outside of Orlando, Fl with dozens of Churches, but also a Mosque and a Hindu center. Contrary to the images of the dark underbelly in America, we are a tremendously multi-cultural nation. The town council here only restricted the early morning call to prayer at the mosque, and Churches cannot ring bells early either. Except for Native Americans, all other Americans are immigrants from somewhere else. Some Americans forget that, but we are truly a greater nation because of immigrants from all over the world.
      I liked the comment in the article that some Swedes ( and Americans) feel that complementing one culture negates another. Having lived in Sweden, I felt in the late 80’s a growing resentment among Swedes about immigration. I believe the left in Sweden labeled anyone questioning allowing large numbers of immigrants to Sweden racist hurt in the long run. The Sweden Democrats then became the only party in Sweden to challenge the notion of allowing large numbers immigrants in, but their arguments were based on racist tenants. Allowing Swedes to bring up the cost of assimilating immigrants with public housing, job training,etc. is not in and of itself racist. I am pro-immigration here in America, but sadly, so many people in the world live in poverty no nation can open their doors wide open and not expect chaos. I would never try and debate a fellow American about immigration by immediately insinuating having doubts about immigration automatically makes them racist. That would be condescending, and would be counterproductive. Good luck in Sweden. My wife is Swedish, and she thrives here in multi-cultural America. I think Sweden is a fabulous country, and is hopefully going to find a balance with regards to immigration. Swedes are very pragmatic, and I have high confidence in the nation to find a way to live with peace and respect for one another.

  2. Great article, Christian. Thanks! It sums up my POV perfectly, especially the line “It’s an odd line of thinking that suggests that the “national culture” people wish to protect is so weak that even recognising the very existence of other religious cultures is a threat”. The concept of ‘Swedishness’ is far deeper than just watching Kalle Anka every Xmas or sucking the brains out of crayfish in August.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

OPINION & ANALYSIS

Down with hygge! Sweden’s mys is more real, fun and inclusive

Hygge, the Danish art of getting cosy, has taken the world by storm. But the Swedish equivalent is refreshingly different, says David Crouch 

Down with hygge! Sweden’s mys is more real, fun and inclusive

It is around six years since the Danish word hygge entered many of our languages. Hygge, pronounced hue-guh and generally translated as the art of cosiness, exploded almost overnight to become a global lifestyle phenomenon.

Hygge dovetailed with mindfulness and fed into other popular trends such as healthy eating, and even adult colouring books. “The Little Book of Hygge” became a publishing sensation and has been translated into 15 languages. In time for Christmas, its author has just issued a second book, “My Hygge Home”, one of dozens already on the market. This is the season of peak hygge, of candles, log fires, cups of cocoa and comforting music.

There is nothing wrong with new ways to relax, and certainly no harm in identifying them with Scandinavia. But as a guide to living your life, there are some problems with hygge. 

First, the original meaning of the word is too broad and subtle to enable a clear grasp of the concept among non-Danes. This probably helps to explain its appeal – hygge is an empty bottle into which you can pour whatever liquid you like.

Patrick Kingsley, who wrote a book about Denmark several years before the hygge hype, was “surprised to hear people describe all sorts of things” as hygge. Danes, he said, would use the word when talking about a bicycle, a table, or even an afternoon stroll. 

So it is hardly surprising that, outside Denmark, hygge is applied rather indiscriminately. Last week the New York Times devoted an entire article to achieving hygge while riding the city’s subway, of all places. “A train, after all, is basically a large sled that travels underground, in the dark,” it said, trying too hard to find a hint of Nordicness on the overcrowded railway.

READ ALSO: Danish word of the day – hyggeracisme

Hygge has become an exotic and mysterious word to describe more or less anything you want. It is as if someone decided that the English word “nice” had a magical meaning that contained the secret to true happiness, and then the whole non-English speaking world made great efforts to achieve the perfect feeling of “nice”. 

A second problem with hygge is that, in Denmark itself, it seems to operate like a badge of Danishness that can only be enjoyed by Danes themselves – a kind of cultural border that outsiders cannot cross. You can walk down a Danish street in the dark, one journalist was told, look through the windows and spot who is Danish and who is foreign just by whether their lighting is hygge or not.

When writer Helen Russell spent a year in Denmark, she was intrigued by hygge and asked a lifestyle coach about it. “It’s hard to explain, it’s just something that all Danes know about,” she was told. How could an immigrant to Denmark get properly hygge, Russell asked? “You can’t. It’s impossible,” was the unhelpful reply. It can’t be a coincidence that the far-right Danish Peoples Party has put a clear emphasis on hygge, as if immigration is a threat to hygge and therefore to Danishness itself. 

READ ALSO: It’s official – Hygge is now an English word

Outside Denmark, this exclusivity has taken on another aspect: where are all the children? Where amid the hygge hype are the bits of lego on the floor, the mess of discarded clothes, toys and half-eaten food, the bleeping iPads and noisy TVs? “Hygge is about a charmed existence in which children are sinisterly absent,” noted the design critic for the Financial Times. It’s as if the Pied Piper of hygge has spirited them away so you can get truly cosy. 

But there is a bigger problem with hygge. It is largely an invention, the work of some clever marketing executives. After spotting a feature about hygge on the BBC website, two of London’s biggest publishers realised this was “a perfect distillation of popular lifestyle obsessions”. They set out to find people who could write books for them on the subject, and so two bestsellers were born, spawning a host of imitations. 

Sweden has a different word that means roughly the same thing: mys (the noun) and mysig (the adjective). There have even been some half-hearted attempts to sell mys to a foreign audience in the same way as hygge. But the real meaning of mys in Swedish society is rather different, it seems to me. The reason for this, I think, is that mys has become so firmly identified with Friday nights, or fredagsmys – the “Friday cosy”. 

Fredagsmys is a collective sigh of relief that the working / school week is over, and now it is time for the whole family to come together in front of some trashy TV with a plate of easy finger-food. The word first appeared in the 1990s, entered the dictionary in 2006, and became a semi-official national anthem three years later with this joyous ad for potato crisps:

In this portrayal, mys is radically different to hygge. It is a celebration of the ordinary, witty and multi-cultural, featuring green-haired goths and a mixed-race family with small children. Food is central to fredagsmys, and what is the typical food of choice? Mexican, of course! Not a herring in sight.

Why Mexican? It seems nobody is really sure, but tacofredag now has roots in Swedish society. Tacos, tortillas, and all the accompanying spices and sauces take up a whole aisle of the typical Swedish supermarket. Swedes are accustomed to eating bread with various bits and pieces on top, according to a specialist in Swedish food culture, while the Swedish tradition of smörgåsbord (open sandwiches) makes a buffet meal seem natural. The fussiness of tacos is even reminiscent of a kräftskiva crayfish party.

There is no cultural exclusivity here. On the contrary, fredagsmys food could equally be Italian, North American, Middle-Eastern, British or French. And children are absolutely central to a good Friday cosy. 

With Swedish mys, everybody is welcome. Get cosy and relax, but do it by mixing and getting messy, rather than retreating into pure, perfect, rarified isolation. There is a time and a place for hygge. But the Swedish version is more real, more fun, and more inclusive.

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

 
 
SHOW COMMENTS