There are few countries in the world that have “lost their innocence” as many times as Sweden. Even before a suspected terrorist and Isis supporter killed four and injured many more in last week’s attack in central Stockholm, Sweden’s policies were being portrayed on the programmes of Fox News and pages of the Daily Mail as, at best, exercises in well-meaning-but-naive multiculturalism, and at worst terrorist appeasement.
So, when terrible events take place, they are framed as evidence of the decline and fall of the European social democratic project, the failure of European immigration policies and of Swedish innocence lost.
When Donald Trump argued against the intake of Syrian refugees to the US earlier this year, he used supposed problems in Sweden as part of his rationale. “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden,” the president said at a rally in Florida in February. “Sweden. Who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.” The White House later clarified that Trump had been speaking about general “rising crime”, when he seemed to be describing a then non-existent terror attack.
Sweden is a capitalist, economic power – usually found near the top of rankings of innovative and competitive economies
The obsession with Sweden has a lot to do with the country’s history of taking in refugees and asylum seekers, combined with social democratic politics. Both are poison to the political right. When prime minister Olof Palme was shot walking home (without bodyguards) from a cinema in 1986, we were told that Swedish innocence and utopian notions of a non-violent society had come to an end. But Swedes miraculously regained their innocence, only to lose it again in 2003 when the popular foreign minister Anna Lindh (also without bodyguards) was stabbed to death in a Stockholm department store. This possession and dispossession of innocence – which some call naivety – has ebbed and flowed with the years.
The election to parliament and subsequent rise of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats were discussed in similar terms, as was the decision in late 2015 by the Swedish government to halt the intake of refugees after a decades-long policy of humanitarian acceptance.
Yet the notion of a doe-eyed Sweden buffeted by the cruel winds of the real world is a nonsense. Sweden is an economic power – usually found near the top of rankings of innovative and competitive economies. Companies that are household names, from H&M to Ericsson and Skype, and food packaging giant Tetra Pak, are Swedish. It plays the capitalist game better than most (and not always in an ethical manner. The country is, per capita, one of the largest weapons exporters in the world. As for the argument that Swedes are in denial, unwilling to discuss the impact of immigration? This comes as news to citizens who see the issue addressed regularly in the Swedish media, most obviously in the context of the rise of the Sweden Democrats.
Between 2014 and 2016, Sweden received roughly 240,000 asylum seekers: far and away the most refugees per capita in Europe. But the process has not been smooth. Throughout 2016 and 2017, the issue of men leaving Sweden to fight for Isis has been a major story, as has the Swedish government’s perceived lack of preparation about what to do when these fighters return. There is also much debate on the practice of gender segregation in some Muslim schools in Sweden.
As Stockholm goes through a period of mourning for last week’s attack, it is worth asking: is Sweden the country divorced from reality? If we are speaking of naivety in relation to terrorism, a good place to start might be US foreign policy in the Middle East , and not Sweden’s humanitarian intake of the immigrants and refugees created (at least in part) as a result of that US policy.
Has Swedish immigration policy always been well thought-out? No. Is Sweden marked by social and economic divisions? Yes. But the presentation of Sweden as some kind of case study in failed utopianism often comes from those who talk a big game on democracy, human rights and equality, but who refuse to move beyond talk into action.
So, when pundits and experts opine on Swedish “innocence lost” it is worth remembering that Sweden has never been innocent. It is also worth remembering that Sweden was willing to put its money where its mouth was when it came to taking in refugees and immigrants fleeing the conflicts and instability fuelled by countries unwilling to deal with the consequences of their actions. This shirking of responsibility while condemning the efforts of others is far worse than being naive. It’s cynical hypocrisy.