Trouble in paradise? On racism in Sweden

By Josefin Hedlund:

The Swedish town of Eskilstuna. Photo: Fredrik Alpstedt (creative commons)
The Swedish town of Eskilstuna. Photo: Fredrik Alpstedt (creative commons)

I was sad and shaken to hear about the arson attack on a mosque in my hometown of Eskilstuna, Sweden, on Christmas Day. The speculations and reactions that ensued in both “old” media outlets and “new” social media were an ugly but necessary reminder of the problems of structural racism in the country, once known as perhaps the social democratic utopia. Sweden needs to face up to, and deal with, these issues through educational, socio-economic, and positive discrimination policies, rather than just blaming it on racist parties such as the “The Sweden Democrats” (SD). This is something that all liberal societies can learn from, instead of sustaining the myth of Sweden as the land of equality and welfare.

The fire happened in broad daylight, 70 people had gathered inside the mosque for prayer. A Molotov cocktail smashed through a window and set fire to the venue, leaving five people in hospital and a heavily damaged building. Since the attack, another two mosques in small towns in Sweden have been set on fire – fortunately not resulting in any further injuries or serious damage.

Speculations as to who was responsible started almost immediately, and suspicions quickly fell on different types of neo-Nazi and racist groups. This is partly because such groups have a strong history of support in the old industrial town of Eskilstuna, but also because attacks on mosques – as well as Islamophobia and racism – have increased significantly in Sweden over the last couple of years. The anti-racist investigative magazine Expo reports that this is the 12th attack on mosques in Sweden in 2014.[i] Although they suspect that the actual number is much higher, since evidence points to how “smaller” attacks, such as racist and Islamophobic graffiti, are usually not reported to the police. The Swedish Commission for Government Support to Faith Communities recently reported that 41% of mosques that participated in a recent study had experienced some sort of vandalism.[ii] Meanwhile, Facebook groups such as “Mosques in Sweden – no thanks!” has a staggering 67,786 “likes”, and the accompanying group “Islam in Sweden – no thanks!” has 14,124 “likes”.

Moreover, on a parliamentary level, the racist party “The Sweden Democrats” increased their share of the vote from 5.7% to 12.9% at the latest elections in September 2014. This is a party that, just like their peers all over Europe, claims they are not racist but just oppose immigration and “different cultures” (such as Islam) in defence of “Swedish culture and values”. In fact they refuse to spell out what they mean by “different cultures”, instead reproducing circular arguments about Swedish culture being “what Swedes do.”[iii] And, importantly, a real “Swede” here is not just a Swedish citizen, but also someone who has fully adopted Swedish values. So a Swede is someone who does things that the mythical breed of Swedes do. This means that they can call any group of people they don’t like “non-Swedish.” Of course, these groups always consist of “Black” or “Middle Eastern-looking” peoples (or “racified peoples”- an expression I will explain later).

Recently, this became shockingly obvious when the new party leader, Björn Söder, stated that Jews and Saami people (indigenous to Northern Scandinavia) are not Swedish.[iv] Their success in the last election therefore shocked many and caused havoc in parliament as SD voted down the proposed Green/Social Democratic budget and thus opened up the possibility of another election. This was only prevented by an agreement between the Left-wing bloc and the Centre-right parties. Some polls showed that support for SD would have been as high as 16% had there been another election.[v]

The successes of the SD have meant that the themes of racism and Islamophobia have been a central focus of recent debates in Sweden. Consequently, the message of anti-racism, as well as religious freedom, was common in condemnations of the attack in Eskilstuna. The anti-racist network “Together for Eskilstuna” organized a demonstration the next day, where people were encouraged to “Love bomb” the mosque by putting up messages of support on heart-shaped bits of paper. Several hundred people turned up and left messages on the wall of the mosque and many of these called for an end to racism and for religious freedom. Prime Minister Löfven strongly condemned the attacks by saying: “the most important thing is that we all, together, stand up for what Sweden really is. And this is not what Sweden is.”[vi]

Yet Sweden’s racism problem is, in fact, part of “what Sweden is”. As commentator Valerie Kyeyene Backström has argued, this type of “empty” anti-racist condemnation is highly prevalent in Swedish debates.[vii] Backstrom and her colleagues at the separatist web platform Rummet (“The Room”)[viii] repeatedly point to the lack of awareness of the structural racism that pervades Swedish society. Racism is instead always discussed as a marginal problem. A popular slogan after the election was, for example, “87% versus 13%,” thus insisting that “the racists” only make up a small minority of the population – i.e. the SD voters.

Many parties and commentators have even been hesitant to call SD “racist,” and instead use the term “xenophobic,” which further entrenches the idea that Sweden does not have problems with racism. This became even clearer in the debates around the suggestion, put forward by previous Minister of Employment Erik Ullenhag last summer, to remove the term “race” from Swedish law. Ullenhag’s reasoning for this was that “race” is an outdated social construction, and as such should not be used. Many liberal debaters supported this suggestion by arguing that “race” does not exist in Sweden. Thus, anti-racist arguments in Sweden are mostly symbolic rhetoric against “outdated” ideas that “others” hold, not about issues that Sweden as a whole needs to address.

But racism is a much bigger issue than these debates suggest. The “Afrophobia Report,”[ix] which was commissioned by Ullenhag himself with the aim of improving knowledge about racism in Sweden, showed precisely this. The findings, published in March 2014, showed that Afro-Swedes are over-represented by 240% as victims of hate crimes, and that this figure has increased by 24% since 2008. Moreover, the unemployment figure for people born in Africa or Asia in 2009 was around 24.7%, compared to 3.5-4% for people born in Sweden. This is the highest difference in employment in Western countries between foreign-born and native-born citizens.[x][xi]

The report also pointed to studies that show how people with an “African-sounding” name have to apply for three times as many jobs as applicants with “Swedish-sounding” names before they are called to an interview – even though they have similar qualifications. What’s more, 38.7% of Afro-Swedes had a “limited economy”[xii] in 2007 compared to 10.5% among Swedish-born residents; and 19.9% were considered “poor” compared to 3.7% of Swedish-born residents.

All of these findings were also supported by the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, which visited Sweden in December 2014. They concluded that “the Swedish philosophy of equality and its public and self-image as a country with non-discrimination and liberal democracy, blinds it to the racism faced by Afro-Swedes and Africans in their midst”.[xiii]

This is the reality of racism that Sweden needs to face up to: namely, that racism is a structural problem that the whole society is responsible for. Thus, it needs to be dealt with through affirmative socio-economic and educational policies with the aim of changing economic, political and discursive structures, rather than with an empty rhetoric of anti-racism that assumes racism is something that “others” do.

Following some of the recommendations of the Afrophobia report and of the UN working group, this could, for example, take the form of educational programs on Sweden’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and more information on the history of the slave trade and racism in general. Another idea is for the government to mobilise a large national campaign against racism, which importantly should seek to get rid of the “us and them” mentality that separates “Swedes” from “immigrants” (and which does not refer to people with and without citizenship) that exists in public discourses.

The verb “racify”, which many anti-racist campaigners and commentators already use, is an excellent way to begin changing this mentality. It aims to draw attention to the social and discursive processes that produce people as being of a different race – “racified people”. Furthermore, in order to get better information about racism on different levels, the judiciary and Office for National Statistics need to start collecting data on people’s perceived “racified” appearance. Perhaps a way to employ the verb “racification” here could be to ask people to self-identify, but also to ask how they think society, employers, and institutions perceive their identity. The types of positive discrimination initiatives that already exist in tackling gender inequality with quotas and diversity plans in employment, housing, and politics, are also needed.

In doing this, we need to stop talking about positive discrimination as something negative, which is opposed to equality, but instead need to realize that positive discrimination already exists. This is because discrimination doesn’t just mean that some people receive unjust and prejudiced negative treatment; it also means that some other people receive unfair and unjust positive treatment. Discrimination is hence a form of differentiation between people based on well-established, but problematic, categorisations of people.

This is the main lesson to learn from the case of Sweden’s failure to live up to the myth of the social democratic utopia of equality and welfare. There are always norms and structures that benefit some people and not others in a society. In Sweden, it seems that a lot of the existing norms and structures unjustly promote non-racified, so-called “white” Swedes in many spheres, including employment, economics and public spaces. While we cannot escape norms and structures altogether, we can change, transform and replace them. The suggestions above could be the first steps towards achieving this transformation in the case of Sweden.

The aim should always be to highlight and discuss what these norms are and how they currently work, in order to find ways to open up spaces for people who do not fit in and who do not benefit. This means that anti-racism and anti-discrimination – rather than being means to an end – need to instead be seen as never-ending processes that call upon us always to stay engaged in politics and to work towards the transformation of unjust norms and structures.

Josefin Hedlund is a second year PhD student in the Department of War Studies at Kings. Her research focuses on Swedish public discourses on solidarity as a way of exploring questions of ethico-politics in the work of Jacques Derrida and International Relations.



[i] Anders Dalsbro, “Flera moskeattacker i Sverige,” [“More attacks on mosques in Sweden”] Expo Idag, 11th of December 2014.

[ii] Nämnden för Statligt Stöd till Trossamfund, “Främlingsfientliga handlingar mot trossamfund: En kartläggning av religiösa gruppers och individers utsatthet i Sverige 2014,” 12th of November 2014, p.13,

[iii] Sverigedemokraterna, “Sverigedemokraternas principprogram 2011,” [The Sweden Democrats’ Principle Program”], p.15-17. Accessed on 12th of January 2014.

[iv] Niklas Orrenius, “Den Leende Nationalismen,” [“The smiling nationalism”], Dagens Nyheter, 14th of December 2014,

[v] “S och SD kraftigt uppåt i Novus,” [“S and SD up in Novus”], Aftonbladet, 16th of December 2014,

[vi] Niklas Svensson, “Stefan Löfven fördömer attacker mot moskeer,” [“Stefan Löfven condemns attacks at mosques”], Expressen, 12th of January 2015,

[vii] Valerie Kyeyune Backström, “Antirasism är det tommaste ordet i svenska språket,” [“Anti-racism is the emptiest word in the Swedish language”], Nöjesguiden, 22nd of September 2014,

[viii] [The Room].

[ix] All statistics cited can be found in the report “Afrofobi: En Kunskapsöversikt över afrosvenskars situation i dagens Sverige,” Mångkulturellt Centrum, 3rd of February 2014, p. 79-87,

[x] Michael McEchrane, “Seeing Sweden’s race problem for what it is,”AlJazeera Opinion, 15th of December 2014,

[xi] The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “International Migration Outlook 2014,” OECD,

[xii] These terms are used by the Swedish National Board for Health and Welfare. ”Poor,” for example, refers to an income which is less than 60% of the average, ”Social Rapport 2010,” [Social Report 2010], Socialstyrelsen, p.91-100.

[xiii] United Nations Human Rights, “Statement to the Media by the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, on the conclusion of its official visit,”1-5 December 2014.

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