"Do you want a Hitler mustache?”
Such was the offering to attendees of a political festival in Sweden last summer, where protestors handed out small pieces of black tape to call attention to the Sweden Democrats and the party’s controversial policies.
Since their founding in 1988, the Sweden Democrats have pledged to tighten the country’s borders and preserve a Swedish ethnic identity. They have promised to drastically reduce the number of immigrants and asylum seekers coming to Sweden and require those who do immigrate to adopt Swedish language, culture, and values.
The Sweden Democrats were originally supported by the margins of Swedish society—including Swedish ‘skinheads’—and were excluded from mainstream politics. But in recent years, the party has become more polished and professional, facilitating an increase in its electoral success. In 2010, the Sweden Democrats entered the national parliament for the first time, receiving 5.7 percent of the vote and a proportional 20 seats in the 349 seat Swedish Riksdag.
The Independent traveled to Sweden to interview members of the Sweden Democrats and their opponents in an effort to understand the party’s immigration policies and the motivations behind them.
Richard Jumshof is one of the Sweden Democrat’s Members of Parliament, where he sits on the Committee on Education. He has been involved with the Sweden Democrats since 1999 and is comfortable speaking on behalf of the party.
The Independent: Do you have a slogan, or a succinct way that you describe your policy on immigration?
Richard Jumshof: Maybe “Swedes First.” A lot of members of the Sweden Democrats have foreign roots. My grandparents came from Finland as migrant workers in the ‘60s. I still think that there are too many foreigners in Sweden, even if I do have those roots.
Sweden is quite a unique country. I’ve been to the States a few times, and I like the United States, but in many ways I think Sweden is better because here you have healthcare, you have good schools for everyone. We should keep it that way. We have problems today with a lot of people coming to Sweden and they don’t get any work. Of course, if they don’t have any jobs, it costs [the government] a lot of money. So, “Swedes First.”
Indy: Is there a way to change the system so that immigrants can come to Sweden and get jobs more easily?
RJ: When I was a teenager in the ‘80s, I was very liberal. I actually believed in a system where people can come here when they want. Shut down the borders, we don’t need them. But today I realize that was quite a naïve approach because it does not work that way. If we want to keep Sweden as it is then we can’t let anyone come to Sweden. The costs are too high.
Today we have a lot of problems with quite a lot of Muslims coming to Sweden. I think Islam is both a strange and dangerous religion. In many ways it’s quite the opposite of Christian values. That for me is one of my main issues.
Indy: Can you elaborate on that? What does Islam represent and why is that dangerous?
RJ: When I judge a religion, of course I have to judge what they say, but I also have to go to the roots. When I judge Christianity, I have to go to the roots, I have to go to Jesus. What did he do? What did he say? He seemed to be quite a nice person. If he lived today he would be a modern hippie.
But when I look at Islam, when it comes to Muhammad, he’s quite the opposite. They say that it’s the same God, but how can it be? For me it is like if someone should build a religion around Stalin or Hitler or Pol Pot. It’s totally stupid. How can you look up to a person like that?
Indy: Has Sweden actually had problems with Muslims engaging in violence?
RJ: We have a lot of issues when it comes to youngsters doing criminal activity.
Indy: And you attribute that to their religion?
RJ: In some way, [and] to culture as well. A lot of people who came to Sweden over the past twenty years from Africa and from the Middle East say “I’m not Swedish; I do not want to be part of that society.” If you don’t want to be part of that society, how can you make this society better?
If you don’t want to be part of this country, I think you should actually move back. I really don’t care about the color of skin. It’s about values to me. You can’t base a society on skin color but you have to base it on something. And for me, that’s values.
Björn Söder has worked with Jumshof for nearly a dozen years. Söder is a Member of Parliament for the Sweden Democrats and also serves as the party’s Press Secretary.
Indy: How did you first get involved with the Sweden Democrats?
Björn Söder: I had a daughter born [in] 2000. You start looking around; what are you giving to your children when you die? And then I called the party. I had been interested in the party before, but the media picture of the party was a bit frightening. But if you read the political programs and listen[ed] to the political programs, it was not that bad.
Indy: Has the media’s image of the Sweden Democrats changed since 2000?
BS: Not as much as I’d prefer. I’d say we are actually in the level where they can admit that we are humans. Before, it was not unusual that we were called lice or cockroaches in the standard news media.
Indy: My understanding is that the bias and stigma against the party came from early members who were affiliated with neo-Nazi organizations.
BS: Of course they are to blame for their behavior and the way they dress and their views, but I think if you do a fair summary of the party from 1988 to now, you would see that represents [only] a few percent. I look at those guys as confused morons, but they have been used as tools in order to talk bad about everything else that has been done.
Indy: Other parties in Sweden have questionable pasts as well, right?
BS: With all parties, if you go way back to the Second World War, everyone did things that they are not proud of. And I don’t think they should be blamed for that either.
We have problems today, as all parties have, but I think our problem is in some way larger because of the fact that the media picture is so twisted…so people who are actually racist or radicals think this is the party for them because they read it in the paper. So of course they want to join us. This is a problem.
Indy: I understand that the other parties in Parliament have pledged not to speak to you or work with you. Do they uphold that pledge in reality?
BS: They are talking to us. And what we’ve noticed is that the tone of voice, the way they treat us is much, much better than we ever could have imagined. They really treat us like equals on a personal level. But when it comes to the voting chamber, where the decision is made, they never push a button for yes on a proposal that we have made. It might take a few more years until they do that, but they will.
Indy: When some of your peers joined the Sweden Democrats, it threatened their relationship with their family or friends. Did you have a similar experience?
BS: I have one sister who is politically engaged in a left wing party that’s more or less the one throwing stones at us at our outdoor meetings. She won’t talk to me at all; she won’t call; we aren’t friends on Facebook. Another sister who is younger also removed me from Facebook.
When we have family dinner, we have to have two. Me and my family and the siblings that I’m not enemies with, we [have] one. And then they [have] another for the ones who could not stand me.
Indy: And this is because…?
BS: It’s a social stigma in Sweden to be a Sweden Democrat.
In Sweden there is a policy that we don’t do any campaigning on Election Day. But on the morning of the 18th or 19th [Election Day in September, 2010], both big Swedish national papers had pictures on the front that “Today we are fighting inhumanity.” On one there was our voting bill and it was crinkled and put on the gutter with a few cigarettes around it and stamped on.
If you’re not into politics, of course you’re going to buy that propaganda. Of course you’re going to think that [a Sweden Democrat supporter] has gone mad, so let’s remove him from Facebook or from the phone list. When it happens, it feels of course not very good. But when you think of it, what kind of friend is it?
Paul Lappalainen immigrated to Sweden from America over thirty years ago and now heads Equality Promotion at the Swedish Equality Ombudsman, a governmental agency that enforces Sweden’s equality and anti-discrimination laws. Lappalainen is particularly focused on discrimination related to ethnicity and religion, which he says is the most common form of discrimination in Sweden.
Indy: Some people would try to explain immigrants’ high unemployment rates by saying that they don’t understand the language as well, or don’t have the skills that are necessary for Swedish employment. But you’re saying that those factors alone can’t explain the higher unemployment rates?
Paul Lappalainen: No. I was one of those unemployed during the ‘90s when I first got involved in local politics. I tended to be the only foreigner who ended up in certain types of meetings where we would discuss immigration policy or immigrants. And then I would hear twenty local politicians discussing “These people, they have to learn Swedish, and they have to stop living together out in certain areas, and they have to want to work.”
And finally when I got a chance to say something, I pointed out that I was at University at the time; I was also unemployed. I know a lot of foreigners who know much better Swedish than I do, they have two or three degrees from the Swedish universities. I didn’t know any of them who said ,“I don’t want a job or I want to live out in Rinkeby [one of the poorest neighborhoods with a large immigrant population].”
People listened to me, looked at me, shook their heads, and went on to discuss, “Why aren’t these people learning Swedish?” “Why don’t they want jobs?” The concept just didn’t fit into their way of thinking. Because in their way of thinking, the whole idea was how can they fit in with us, not what kinds barriers are we setting up to keep them out, even when we invite them in.
Indy: Generally, do politicians in Sweden have good immigration policies?
PL: The things that they say don’t make sense. It has to do with immigrants—they are extremely weak politically. Fourteen percent of the population is born outside of the country. But, to a large extent, they’ve never been mobilized as a political force.
Indy: Let’s talk about the Sweden Democrats. Who supports their immigration policy?
PL: They are speaking to the part of the population that’s dissatisfied with the direction that Sweden is going. There’s some ideological support, people who hate immigrants. Then there’s another group that’s basically lower middle class, working class Swedes who have been affected by changing structure in Sweden. Industry has been shut down; certain types of workplaces don’t exist anymore. They feel that Sweden has received all of these refugees who are supposedly getting all this help, but they see themselves suffering. They think, “These people are getting help, what’s happened to me? What’s happened to the Sweden that I believed in 20, 30, 40 years ago? Why didn’t the politicians tell me they were going to change Sweden?”
Indy: Many Sweden Democrats say that when they joined the party, they were ostracized in many ways—shut out by family members, lost a lot of friends. Do you think they deserve that?
PL: I don’t think they’re that different from most people in society. They might have an overly romantic view of how Sweden once was. Sweden has never been the way that it’s imagined by Sweden Democrats and by most Swedes.
Indy: Is it wrong to call the Sweden Democrats a racist party?
PL: I don’t think it’s wrong to call them a racist party. What I think is wrong is to think that they’re the only party that has a problem with racism.
Indy: Do you think the established parties would lose voters if they confronted the Sweden Democrats, instead of pledging not to speak to them?
PL: Not if they are intelligent. But if they don’t admit that they themselves have been part of the problem—if they try to say that these are evil people, and they’re the root of the problem, as opposed to [the fact that] Sweden has its history of racism, discrimination, and the established parties have done quite little—then they might.
As far as I’m concerned, if one of the established parties dares to put equality and nondiscrimination on the table as a key issue, all the others will run over and say, “Me too.”
And they’ll start competing for who’s better at equality, and that’s actually what we need.