Muslim refugees and the cost of Sweden's kindness

Natasha Fatah on how Muslim immigration is reshaping Swedish politics.

In my home, Sweden is almost on a pedestal.

My parents grew up on the sweet, perfect-pop music of ABBA in the '70s and consequently so did I.

My husband, Chris, loves Scandinavian design and the Swedish national hockey team. In fact, last year Chris volunteered to teach little Swedish-Canadian children their native tongue on Saturday mornings.

Heck, even our Christmas tree is loaded with ornaments from Ikea.

But beyond that, the northern European country has been a political icon for my family, as an example for the rest of the world to follow.

So it was with much excitement that Chris and I visited Sweden for the first time earlier this month.

A firefighter attempts to put out a fire on a burning car in Stockholm on Dec. 11, 2010, one of two blasts from a would-be suicide bomber. A Swedish news agency said that 10 minutes before the first blast it received an email with threats regarding the Swedish presence in Afghanistan and the 2007 case of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who has been the subject of death threats in the past. (Reuters TV)

It's a country that isn't usually at the top of most people's to-visit list and it's hardly ever in the news. But it was an important destination for us.

Luckily, for us at least, our visit ended a few days before Sweden's peaceably sleepy reputation was shattered when 28-year-old Taimour Abdulwahab strapped an explosive belt to his chest and set off a car bomb in Stockholm on Saturday, killing himself and injuring two others.

It is alleged that the Iraqi-born Swede was planning to detonate the bomb at a busy train station or a shopping centre. Some reports said the target was the newspaper that published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed three years ago.

But thanks to a twist of fate, the bomb went off prematurely and the bomber was the only one killed.

This was the first suicide bombing on Swedish soil. But the truth is that the groundwork for just such an attack has been brewing there for years.


During our trip, we went to the southern end of the country and visited Malmo, Sweden's third largest city. A beautiful little town that could be the setting for a fairytale.

In the main square, stereotypical six-foot tall Scandinavian blonds were standing around a giant skating rink, watching children perform in the frigid temperatures. It felt like something out of a Swedish Norman Rockwell painting.

But just beyond the main centre is a different stereotype: Streets full of young Muslim men with long beards and women in black hijabs, dragging their Middle Eastern robes through the slushy thoroughfares.

The near fairytale world of Malmo, Sweden's third largest city. (Chris Kayaniotes/CBC)

They would be just a few of the many Muslim immigrants who have come to Malmo in recent years, a direct result of Sweden's generosity, opening up its borders to thousands of Arabs and Muslims from strife-torn countries.

This isn't the first time Sweden has welcomed those seeking refuge from hostile environments.

Malmo's Jewish community is almost entirely made up of those who fled central Europe during the Second World War, as well as Holocaust survivors and their descendants.

It was that same Swedish generosity that also welcomed the more recent influx of those fleeing persecution and war in the Middle East, specifically from Iraq.

In fact, by most estimates, close to a quarter of the city's almost 300,000 population is Muslim — one of the highest rates in Europe.

Schools here have tried to accommodate their curriculums and their lunch menus to these newcomers and, if the trend continues, Malmo will have a Muslim majority in a few decades.

No fairytale

But this kindness has come at a cost to the Swedes.

Malmo was supposed to be a symbol of Sweden's multiculturalism. But it is in danger of turning into an Islamist ghetto, with a hard core of those who favour an Islamic state.

Perhaps one of the most troubling outcomes has been the often antagonistic and, at times, violent relationship with the town's Jewish population.

During last year's conflict in Gaza, for example, some Muslims here threw rocks and, it was reported, pipe bombs at those taking part in a demonstration in support of Israel. People were hurt and lines were drawn.

What's more, because so many in the left now think that anyone who criticizes Israel is an ally, Sweden's left-wing parties have come down on the side of outraged Muslims in this dispute.

And that has left the responsibility for criticizing the rise of an Islamist agenda squarely on the shoulders of Sweden's right-wing factions. 

The result, unfortunately, is that in this otherwise progressive nation, the ultra-right-wing Swedish Democrats are enjoying a rise in popularity, having entered parliament for the first time in the September elections, largely on the basis of an anti-immigrant agenda.

Moving out

Last year, a building that served Malmo's Jewish community was set on fire.

Muslim protesters in Malaysia burn a Swedish flag and photos of Swedish artist Lars Vilks outside the Swedish Embassy in Kuala Lumpur in March 2010. (Lai Seng Sin/Associated Press)

Jewish cemeteries and places of worship have been vandalized and Jews have been verbally abused and sometimes attacked on the streets, according to many published reports.

Some here say city officials are doing little to prevent this abuse and, as a result, Swedish-born Jews are leaving Malmo. Families are moving out and young people are looking for work in other parts of the country or the European Union.

This is a generous country, one that opened its door to thousands of Iraqi refugees and immigrants after the war. But a few seem to have taken advantage of that kindness and are warping Sweden's otherwise tolerant identity.

Sweden's minister for integration, the Burundi-born Nyamko Sabuni, is a Muslim herself on her mother's side and she has been trying to warn about the rise of Islamist extremism there.

But her concerns have been largely ignored by the mainstream and her appointment to cabinet was, in fact, condemned by many Swedish Muslims.

Now, as a result of this week's senseless suicide, there will likely be even more talk about shutting the doors on newcomers and, specifically, to Muslims. Meanwhile, the Jews of Sweden will continue to leave.

But few will address the real problem — an Islamist political agenda in Europe that is claiming not just the lives of misguided extremists but whole towns like Malmo.