The Internationalist

The Ugly Side of Sweden

One of the most beautiful, egalitarian countries in the world was also the site of disturbing protests in May. Janine di Giovanni visits Stockholm and attempts to understand why.

07.17.13 8:45 AM ET

Sweden, in the summer at least, must be one of the most glorious places in the world. The midnight sun makes the crime low and the people cheerful from midsummer until the first days of autumn. A country of 9.5 million souls, it has remained peaceful since the early-19th century and was neutral during World War II. In 2013, The Economist declared the Nordic countries the best governed in the world, and put Sweden in the first place.

As far as city living goes, Stockholm is so damned politically correct, and so damned easy. It has a low-density population. Escape from the city is easy. More than 30,000 islands are in the Swedish archipelago, making the hop from urban life to bucolic isolation available to anyone who can jump on a boat leaving the city every few minutes.

Beautiful, chic young people dine out in cool neighborhoods like SoFo at a fraction of what you would pay in Paris, London, or New York. The city is awash with blonde babies, because the system has made it painless to go on maternity leave (there is an established paternity leave as well), then glide back into the workforce.

What else? A constitutional monarchy. Clean, emission-reduced air, a noise-free airport (they do not announce flights to spare passengers the chaos of loudspeakers), a wholesome, attractive young population, good medical care. It’s practically an Aryan paradise.

Except if you don’t fit in the model.

From the 1990s onward, Sweden was a textbook refugee haven, taking in the homeless from wars in the Balkans, Africa, and later Iraq and Afghanistan. While the new Swedes struggled with the language and the system, they were well housed—as in the cases of refugees in France as well—in the outskirts of the capital.

So when Stockholm blew up at the end of May into its own little Arab Spring, most Europeans were shocked. Swedes, however were not. While opening their doors was worthy and noble, the assimilation of immigrants—particularly of Muslims into a Christian, formerly rural-population country—is often an uphill battle.

Further, the OECD had recently published a report showing that between 1985 and the late 2000s, Sweden had seen the biggest growth in inequality of all of the 31 most industrialized countries.

And while Sweden has got to be one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, hands down, it is important to note, according to The Guardian, that:

“[I]t is taking big steps in the wrong direction. Swedes used to pride themselves on their sense of moderation, what they referred to as lagom. Prime ministers were supposed to live as modestly as school teachers. Compare that with the recent craze in for vaskning. It means sinking, and refers to a practice adopted by young, gilded Swedes of buying two bottles of champagne and then ordering the barman to pour one down the plughole.”

So even while the beautiful youth sit drinking designer beer, one in four Swedes are unemployed, and that old line, the gap between rich and poor, gets bigger. According to The Guardian, in some small communities, youth are handed money to emigrate to richer Norway.

The riots started in Husby, a northern Stockholm suburb, at the end of May. The script was the same as it was in France in 2004: disenchanted immigrant youth, torched cars, a school classroom gutted by fire, a gang of far-right extremists chasing immigrants through the street. In the end, 30 Swedish police officers were injured, with one, Mika Eskelinen, expressing his frustration to a local newspaper, Dagens Nyhele. “We are not incredible hulks,” he said, meaning they had been badly beaten.

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And what was the cause? A feeling of not belonging. As Beatrice Ask, the social minister said: “Social exclusion is a very serious cause of many problems.”

But this is nothing new. In 2011, the European Network Against Racism published an extended paper on racism in Sweden, concluding that “immigrants and persons with foreign parents are subject to greater levels of racism and discrimination.”

In many ways, watching the wide, litter-free streets, the toy-land quality of the landscape, one can see the social-democratic tradition relies on everyone being the same.

Equality, as someone pointed out to me, means sameness and similarity. Interesting that the taxi drivers, the guys behind the scene in the kitchen scrubbing pots, do not have the blonde-wholesome exterior. They are Kurds, Iraqis, Somalis, Turks, Bosnians, who live on the periphery of the city. They are the ones who rise up in frustration.

There are no easy solutions to assimilating refugees into a solid culture. When I did a year-long study in 2005 of European countries integrating Muslims into their cultures, France came in the lowest of the rank. Sweden was not far behind, though, which is worrying, as racism in France is much closer to the bone. One would expect the country of Olof Palme, or Anna Lindh, or Raoul Wallenberg, to somehow do better.

Stockholm is surely an urban planner’s dream. Everything works. Everything looks good. But we live in times where revolutions and uprisings are rising from the disenchanted and the dispossessed. The riots here earlier in the summer were a warning call—that even the most seemingly perfect of cultures can get it wrong.