The Rise of Sweden Democrats: Islam, Populism and the End of Swedish Exceptionalism

Sweden Democrats party leader Jimmie Akesson speaks on election evening at Kristallen restaurant in central Stockholm, Sweden September 9, 2018. TT News Agency/Anders Wiklund/via REUTERS      ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. SWEDEN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SWEDEN.


  1. Introduction
  2. The rise of the Sweden Democrats
  3. How Sweden Democrats view Muslim migration, violence, and the welfare state
  4. Who belongs? Islam and Swedish identity
  5. Europe, multiculturalism, and the Sweden Democrats
  6. Conclusion


Historically, Sweden has been a generous safe haven for refugees. Of all the countries featured in this Brookings project, it has taken in the most refugees per capita, and is third in the world on this measure behind Canada and Australia.[1] In 2015, Sweden had a record-high of 162,877 applications for asylum, primarily from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—or about 1.6 percent of Sweden’s population of 10 million.[2] This would be proportionally equivalent to over five million people applying for asylum in the United States, which in fact only received approximately 83,000 asylum applications that year.[3]

For a country like Sweden that has grown increasingly secular over recent decades, the influx of Muslims from war-torn countries has greatly impacted politics and society. The Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna), a right-wing populist party once politically verboten because of ties to neo-Nazis at its founding in 1988, is now the third largest party in the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament. It has effectively fashioned a narrative linking the surge of predominantly Muslim immigrants to a perception of an uptick in violent crimes and perceived strains on the prized Swedish welfare system. Swedes who are disgruntled by “the establishment” response to these concerns, especially regarding sociocultural issues,[4] are attracted to the populist refrain of the Sweden Democrats: “We say what you think.”[5] Unsurprisingly, the Sweden Democrats’ primary talking point is to specifically halt asylum immigration, which is predominantly Muslim.

This case study offers insight into why Swedes are joining the Sweden Democrats and the connection to their perception of Islam. Through interviews with Sweden Democrat voters and officials primarily in Skåne, the southern party stronghold, this paper provides an intimate portrait of Sweden Democrats and their frustration with a political establishment over Muslim immigration, the perceived impact on the welfare system, and the cultural fallout in secular, liberal Sweden.[6] Interviewees eagerly shared their experiences of changes in Sweden, such as the introduction of Muslim children joining their kids’ classes, witnessing crimes in neighborhoods with more immigrants, and experiencing what they think of as religious concessions for Muslims who “should” be assimilating to secular Sweden.

Sweden Democrats do not believe that problems of crime or integration stem primarily from failures of socioeconomic policy or government bureaucracy; rather, they also blame culture, both of Muslim immigrants and political correctness. The Sweden Democrats and their robust network of “alternative media”[7] offer narratives that make sense of these phenomena, regardless of whether claims might be unverified or false. When faced with allegations of racism, however, Sweden Democrats double down on the populist message that they are normal, working-class people trying to call attention to socioeconomic and sociocultural challenges posed by an influx of non-Western refugees, which they claim traditional political parties do not tackle head-on.

the Rise of the Sweden Democrats

To understand the rise of the Sweden Democrats, it is important to first consider how the party exists in opposition to Sweden’s pre-existing political landscape, which had been governed more or less by a centrist consensus emphasizing humanitarianism and social welfare. The current ruling party, the Social Democrats, has been in power for the better part of the twentieth century with the exception of a few election cycles. Under the idea of folkhemmet or creating a “people’s home,” the Social Democrats in the 1930s were responsible for setting up much of Sweden’s robust social welfare system. It is the oldest party in Sweden and is currently leading the government in coalition with the Green Party.[8]

The second largest party is the Moderates, a center-right party and the main opposition to the Social Democrats. They differ from the latter in their support for free market principles, economic liberalism, and tax cuts. From 2006 to 2014 they were the lead party in coalition with the Christian Democrats, Liberals, and Center Party. Yet when the Sweden Democrats became the Riksdag’s third largest party in 2018, this coalition split, with the Liberals and Center Party offering support to the Social Democrats and refusing to make common cause with the Sweden Democrats to form a conservative government.[9]

There is a proud national narrative of “Swedish Exceptionalism” for welcoming refugees and providing asylum. While Swedes might have guarded their ethnic homogeneity before the 1930s, by World War II, Sweden began accepting Norwegian, Jewish, Danish, and Estonian immigrants.[10] In the decades following, they welcomed Iranians after the Islamic revolution, Chileans fleeing Pinochet, and war refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Being a safe haven for others became a point of pride.[11] As other European countries moved toward stricter immigration policies in the 1990s and 2000s, Sweden opened up.[12]With some exceptions, politicians on both the left and right supported generous asylum and immigration policies well above the EU-minimum standards.[13]

All of this changed with the refugee crisis of 2015, marking the “end of Swedish exceptionalism,” when political parties changed their rhetoric and policies in reaction to fears of a “system collapse” from the massive influx of migrants.[14]By November 2015, even the Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Löfven noted, “It pains me that Sweden is no longer capable of receiving asylum seekers at the high level we do today. We simply cannot do any more,” the near opposite of what he said just seven months before.[15] By this time however, the Sweden Democrats had already seized the opportunity to position themselves as the only “authentic” party calling for curbing immigration not just recently but for decades.

It was against a backdrop of de-industrialization, public spending cutbacks, rising unemployment, and the violent breakup of Yugoslavia that caused an influx of refugees, that the Swedish Democrats grew up after their founding in 1988.[16] Like other radical right parties, they called for restricting immigration across the board, not just of Muslims.[17] Initially, the party had connections to Swedish fascism and explicit white nationalism.[18] They elected Anders Klarström as party chairman in 1989, who had been linked to the neo-Nazi Nordic Realm Party.[19] After photos surfaced of some members wearing Nazi uniforms in the mid-1990s, the party banned the wearing of uniforms of any kind and explicitly denounced Nazism in an attempt to present a more respectable image.[20]

Most of my interviewees acknowledged the racist origins of the Sweden Democrats but insisted that the party had outgrown them. A party official and Iranian immigrant who joined in 2013 rejected claims of racism, despite his own initial fears to the contrary: “I was afraid that when I became a member, when I was coming to party headquarters in Malmö, I was expecting like, oh, will there be a Southern Dixie Flag. But I came here and there was coffee and cookies and there was nothing like that.”[21] Other respondents claimed that while extremists still sometimes showed up to local Sweden Democrat meetings, they were summarily expelled. A few interviewees shrugged off the party’s past or denied pieces of it, saying that political adversaries draw attention to the racist past to delegitimize the party.

Despite dark origins, the Sweden Democrats have surged both in Riksdag seats and in public opinion polls. In the 2018 Riksdag election, the Sweden Democrats gained 13 seats for a total of 62, while the Social Democrats lost 13 seats, dropping to 100.[22] Since 2014, the Sweden Democrats have been the third largest party in parliament.[23] Particularly in the southern Skäne region, Sweden Democrats have made up the largest party in 21 of the region’s 33 municipalities since 2018.[24] During the writing of this paper, the Sweden Democrats tailed the Social Democrats as most popular among voters in opinion polls, at one point besting them with 24 percent of support, compared to the Social Democrats at 22 percent.[25]

Why the increased popularity? Scholars Anders Hellström, Tom Nilsson, and Pauline Stoltz describe three phases of the Sweden Democrats’ development. The first was before 2006, when the party was more or less out of public view and perceived as a small movement with neo-Nazi flourishes. In 2005, the 26-year-old chairman of the Sweden Democratic Youth, Jimmie Åkesson became the party leader, a position he still holds today. A former web developer and ex-Moderate, Åkesson strove to change the party’s image after various neo-Nazi leaders were expelled.[26] The change in leadership arguably ushered the party into a second stage (2006-2010), pushing it away from openly racist groups and toward a populist message advocating for “ordinary people” against a corrupt elite at the height of a global recession. This catapulted the Swedish Democrats into the media and public consciousness and gave the party its first significant electoral gains. The third phase came in 2010, when they entered parliament for the first time with 20 seats.[27] The party officially changed its self description from “nationalist” to “social conservative” in 2011, and in 2012 introduced a “zero tolerance for racism” policy, which expelled party members with public opinions deemed as too racist.[28]

Notably, anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiments were not included in this expulsion. The Sweden Democrats had been laying the groundwork for a more focused anti-Islam narrative long before 2015, identifying Islam as public enemy number one. Åkesson claimed in 2009, “As a Sweden Democrat I see this [Islam and Muslims in Sweden] as our biggest foreign threat since World War II…Leading representatives of the Muslim community will demand the implementation of Sharia law in Sweden; that the Swedish municipal health board would use taxes to circumcise totally healthy young boys; that Sweden would have a higher level of rape and that Muslim men would be strongly represented among the rapists; that Swedish swimming clubs would introduce separate timetables for women and men.”[29]

These warnings about Islam from Åkesson’s 2009 speech, such as rape by migrants and religiously segregated swimming pools, came up in many interviews, despite most interviewees only joining the party in the past five to seven years. Survey research shows that Sweden Democrats have significantly different opinions of Muslims than those in other parties. According to recent Pew Research Center polls, 59 percent of Swedes with a positive opinion of the Sweden Democrats express an unfavorable opinion of Muslims in their country. Conversely of those with a negative view of the Sweden Democrats, just 17 percent see Muslims negatively.[30] Of Swedes, 70 percent had favorable attitudes toward immigration in 2015, yet Sweden Democrats’ higher skepticism toward immigration has framed it as an increasingly important political issue.[31]

Building on Hellstöm, Nilsson, and Stoltz, I suggest there is a fourth phase in the party’s evolution, marked by the 2015 refugee crisis. In a span of three months, 114,000 predominantly Muslim asylum seekers arrived in Sweden, primarily into Malmö and small towns in the South, overwhelming the capacity of both government and civil society organizations while garnering continuous media attention.[32]

After that, the asiktskorridor or “opinion corridor” of what was socially acceptable in Swedish politics widened as discontent grew with how established parties handled welfare, immigration, and cultural concerns emerging from the crisis.[33] Leading up to the 2018 election, immigration and healthcare polled nationally as the top concerns, respectively.[34] The Sweden Democrats seized the opportunity to draw attention to the failures of the government’s approach, cultural clashes with visibly observant Muslims, and reports of growing crime—creating a recruitment mechanism for disaffected Swedes.

There is an experience of “coming out” as a Sweden Democrat, where after suppressing opinions on Islam or migration perceived as “politically incorrect,” members would reveal their beliefs more publicly, to family and friends and then to the rest of their community.[35] By 2015, the Sweden Democrats had “come out.”

How sweden Democrats view Muslim Migration, Violence, and the Welfare State

When I asked Sweden Democrat members why they joined the party, most everyone mentioned the 2015 refugee crisis, violence, or strains on the welfare state. Many elaborated with personal experiences of crime or new refugees in their children’s small classes, impacting the quality of education. They generally believed that while these issues have socioeconomic dimensions, they are also connected to the nature of Muslim culture. When Islam came up, most interviewees began by emphatically stating they were not racist (“The worst thing to call a Swede is a racist”[36]), did not inherently hate anyone, and that there is a difference between “extremism” in any religion and private faith. However, they also admitted to being more than a little concerned about the scale of religious Muslim refugees introduced into Sweden’s secular welfare state and the government’s response. At least in these interviews, “Muslim” and “immigrant” were used nearly interchangeably.

These interviewees felt that only the Sweden Democrats and the “alternative media” spoke “directly” about contentious issues like religion, immigration, and crime, situating them in a connected narrative. In a recent description of their core policy goals, the Sweden Democrats highlighted four objectives: a migration policy that ends asylum immigration; a reformed welfare system; a “united country”; and a “safe society” protecting Sweden from “Islamism or any other extremism,” though the manifesto does not specify what Islamism is.[37]

Similarly, the “alternative media” profusely covers topics relating to immigration, culture clash, and crime, and may exacerbate, falsely report, or erroneously correlate these phenomena.  For instance, mainstream journalism might cover a bombing. “Alternative media” links to this coverage, but embeds it in a larger explanatory narrative emphasizing Islam or Muslims’ role.[38] This approach has been proven to impact political attitudes on immigration.[39] Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets rarely directly challenge claims made by the “alternative media.” This can leave such rhetoric to dominate digital media without the same volume of counter-arguments (at least those with good search-engine optimization) for queries like “migrants and rape in Sweden.” Additionally, these causal claims have increasingly entered mainstream discourse.[40]

This section explores, in their own words, interviewee reflections on the issues, the media environment, and personal experiences that inspired them to join the Sweden Democrats. The subsequent section then dives deeper into the role their perception of culture and Islam has in making sense of the issues in question.

The 2015 Refugee Crisis

Though immigration has since slowed significantly,[41] the political and social impact of the 2015 refugee crisis still looms large. Like many interviewees who live in the South, the Sweden Democrats party chairman in a seaside town recalled the arrival of the asylum seekers: “In 2015, when the war and all the immigrants came to Europe every 24 hours, they came from Germany by boats. We have a big harbor here in Trelleborg. Between 800 to 1,300 [came] every 24 hours.[42] These numbers may be somewhat exaggerated, and trying to confirm data in a moment of crisis can be difficult, but the final numbers were daunting.[43] For example, Sweden spent €6 billion or 1.35 percent of its GDP on the 162,877 asylum seekers in 2015—amounting to 1.6 percent of population—from predominantly Muslim countries.

Typically, the Swedish government funds language training and labor market integration of asylees in their first two years.[44] The Swedish Migration Agency website also details stipends, housing, language training, healthcare, and other support available to asylum seekers,[45] though services and applications are still backlogged because of the influx.[46] At the height of the 2015 crisis, the increasingly strained migration agency began to rely on local non-government organizations and charities to fill in gaps of services.[47]

Generally, after two years of support for new asylees, the national government then passes responsibility over to municipalities who administer most social services locally.[48] The majority of refugees in Sweden tend to be placed in peripheral and rural areas experiencing economic decline,  rapid native depopulation, and few opportunities for employment, making social and economic integration difficult for migrants, and straining already economically declining municipalities.[49]

Every interviewee cited the 2015 crisis and the government’s response to it as one of their main reasons in supporting the Sweden Democrats. Interviewees mentioned several specific policies they disliked, but the government’s ultimate sin was that it had opened its doors to large numbers of predominantly Muslim refugees while “having problems” integrating Muslims immigrants who were already in the country. Even though the government moved to institute border checkpoints, began to limit asylees as soon as November 2015, and temporarily revoked permanent residency and family reunification privileges to most new asylum seekers,[50] the Sweden Democrats positioned themselves as the insurgent voice calling the government out for acting too late and ineffectively, for too long. One participant in the local Sweden Democrats party meeting said he was “angry at every politician on television” for years, but the government’s reaction to the 2015 crisis was the last straw; after that, he joined the Sweden Democrats.

Frustrated by “the establishment” approach to immigration, one municipal councilmember in Svedala described joining the Sweden Democrats: “That’s what it’s about. We’ve been too generous. We have had immigration much too high for a long time. But I never thought about, you know, entering politics. I went to vote. I had an opinion about this and that. In 2015, we saw the large wave of immigrants all over Europe. And I was really appalled at the response of the government, or lack of response.”[51] Like all of other interviewees, he favors ending asylum migration entirely, but not other types of immigration, like skilled labor, provided these immigrants can “assimilate.”

The Sweden Democrats advocate ending asylum immigration and instead propose increasing economic aid for refugees abroad in their respective countries. This avoids the problem of assimilation, particularly Muslims who interviewees believe are hard to integrate in large numbers. Sweden Democrats argue that the country had economic, criminal, and cultural problems due to unassimilated immigrants, especially Muslims, even before 2015, and more refugees were just exacerbating the problem.


Every interviewee cited the government’s inadequate response to violent crime as a reason to support the Sweden Democrats. Data show an increase in certain types of crime over the past few years, including bombings, gang violence, and rape, which interviewees blamed on a multiplicity of factors, some socioeconomic and some sociocultural relating to Islam.  However, the reality is far more nuanced. Accurately assessing these claims and discerning a comprehensive picture of the violence is not straightforward.

Certain trends in violent crime have provoked public debate. Sweden saw over 100 bombings in 2019, twice that of 2018—one of the highest percentage increases of any other industrialized nation.[52] While the homicide rate remains one of the lowest in the world, figures of 300 shootings and 45 deaths in 2018[53] and 320 shootings with 41 deaths in 2019 shocked Swedes.[54]Though its murder rates have fallen since the 1990s, there has been a significant estimated rise in firearm-related violence in Sweden.[55] These crimes have been connected to a rise of gangs and organized crime groups, which are predominantly composed of first or second-generation immigrants, though not strongly correlated to a specific country, ethnicity, or religion.[56]

Yet a major difficulty in assessing the nature of these crimes is the limited availability of official data. For instance, the Swedish Police Authority only began to collect data on the number of non-lethal shootings in 2017. Similarly, while the government has conducted studies on the national origin of crime suspects, the most recent one was in 2005, which, among other things, found immigrants more likely to be suspected of crimes, with discrimination playing a role. Comprehensive official data on national origin of criminal suspects is not readily available,[57] even though various parties have demanded new investigations to find data that will substantiate their claims.[58]

Of the data that is available, interpretations and implications can be misleading, depending on bias. For example, official statistics do show a large increase in reported rapes, or 34 percent, in the past ten years,[59] but convictions remain low.[60] The Swedish government caveats that the increased statistic could have something to do with the nature of Sweden’s criminal reporting style, changes in the definition of rape, and a new cultural willingness to report.[61] Thus, conclusions based solely on the increased rape statistic might be at least partly misleading.

The media has stepped in with the aim of filling in the gaps, sometimes contradicting government claims. In 2018, a public broadcaster investigated court convictions and found that 58 percent of convicted rapists were foreign-born, feeding into a narrative that the rise in rapes was due to some cultural proclivity among Muslim refugees. The piece attracted endless media attention, yet this statistic does not consider the ethnic breakdown of non-prosecuted cases nor is it an official statistic given that the government does not report national origin of suspected rapists.[62] To combat this narrative, the government pointed to a 2013 study showing that the main difference in terms of criminal activity between immigrants and other populations is due to socioeconomic conditions rather than culture.[63] Yet Sweden Democrats posit that individual and cultural factors must also play a role. “Think of Social Democrats and their worldview: they have a dogma that crime is due to poverty,” a Sweden Democrat told me. “But you can’t blame everything on that! They think it is ‘society’s’ fault, not the individual. This doesn’t explain rapes and bombing.”[64]

Irrespective of the cause or severity of the violence in Sweden, the narrative that violence is getting worse and more grotesque because of immigrants is having a very real impact on political opinion. This is due in part to an “alternative media” ecosystem, one of the most robust in Europe, which shares politically slanted news primarily through Twitter and Facebook, often in closed groups. The main media sources, Samhallsnytt (News in Society) and Nyheter Idag (News Today), were founded by Sweden Democrats and another, Fria Tider(Free Times), is often viewed as the most Kremlin-friendly. They have the appearance of professional news sites and are shared at increasingly high levels. For instance, in the leadup to the 2018 elections, Swedish Twitter users shared one link from this ecosystem for every two links shared of professional news.[65]

Through “alternative media,” reports of attacks by people of color and Muslims are continuously shared and exaggerated. In one case, they were staged by a Russian television crew.[66] Many respondents discussed reading local papers in addition to the aforementioned online sources which they referred to as “alternative media,” acknowledging them as distinct from other news. The narratives from these outlets have spread through international “alternative media” sources such as Breitbart.

Violent riots in immigrant communities have captured considerable media attention, such as the 2008 Malmö Mosque Riots, the 2010 and 2017 Rinkeby Riots, and 2013 Stockholm riots, with “alternative media” dubbing these as ungovernable “no-go zones,”[67] though police say this is not the case.[68] Even U.S. President Donald Trump used Sweden as a cautionary tale in a 2017 rally, referencing a non-existent terrorist attack there saying, “They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.”[69] The aforementioned Rinkeby Riots occurred two days later, drawing more attention to the issue.

Complementing these media narratives are personal experiences, local stories, and a sense of injustice. A councilmember in the seaside town of Trelleborg said he joined the Sweden Democrats in 2006 after a personal experience with violence. He spoke about how his daughter had a child with a Tunisian Muslim who ended up assaulting the two, causing the baby developmental damage. He said the man was imprisoned, but on appeal was set free and given money to compensate for wrongful imprisonment. The councilman claimed that if a non-Muslim Swede committed the same crime, he would still be imprisoned, but because the man was Muslim, the court was more lenient. Trying to verify elements of stories like this with third party sources can be difficult in this information environment. As a charismatic local leader, however, his story is well-known.

All of this leads Sweden Democrat supporters to a hyperawareness of nearby crime, alleged and real; according to one poll, respondents expressing “great concern” about crime has increased from 32 percent to 43 percent in the past ten years.[70] When asked if the problems would be visible to them if they just logged off social media, one interviewee remarked, “We see the problems with our own eyes. We can’t shut that off.”[71]

Several interviewees used to live in Malmö, but they said witnessing violence there caused them to move to small towns and later join the Sweden Democrats. Malmö is a city that is about 45 percent of immigrant background[72] and though certain types of violent crime decreased in 2018, there are still high-profile shootings, increased rape reports, as well as bombings.[73] One party chairman in Svedala, where the Sweden Democrats have the most seats of any party,[74] described his move from Malmö in 2010: “We experienced an increasing sense of not being safe. Especially my wife. […] That summer, they blew up the cash machine outside the bank. The night before we moved, a man was shot down in the parking lot just next to my house. You know, when we loaded the furniture in the truck, we could see the stains of blood.”[75] Another council member described moving 30 minutes outside of Malmö in 2010 after a person was murdered 100 meters from where he lived. Yet he did not blame the new refugees—he thought they were mostly immigrant gangs from the former Yugoslavia and not specifically new Muslims.[76]

Interviewees discerned that not all of the gang violence was coming from the most recent refugees, but many believed that adding more immigrants to already economically and socially depressed areas would create more problems. A Christian Iranian immigrant and Sweden Democrat official in Malmö joined the party when he saw a rise in anti-Semitism in the immigrant neighborhoods he grew up in. As has been reported elsewhere, he noted that some immigrants like himself were joining the Sweden Democrats because of violence in their neighborhoods.[77] He said, “[Immigrants are] usually the ones who have to live in these areas and these areas take most of the migrants when they come to a city like Malmö. And therefore, we have a lot of social problems. If we have less migration, these areas can somehow heal because we can’t have new people coming into these areas all the time. Like many newly arrived migrants, they have difficulties getting a job. So there are a lot of unemployed people in these areas. So these areas can never create some kind of community. I’ve grown up with all these problems. So I wanted to do something about it.”[78]

Strains on Welfare and Education 

Given that Swedes pay some of the highest personal income taxes in the world, there are regular public concerns about any decreased quality in healthcare or education. On healthcare, for instance, recent reports show some of the worst wait times for emergency care in Europe,[79]  delays in specialist care, nurse shortages, fewer beds but an increased population, and clinic closures. Compared internationally, Sweden still has good healthcare, cancer survival, and life expectancy.[80] Yet, quality of care can range widely because responsibility for health and elder care is decentralized to the county and municipal levels.[81] This means sometimes more rural or aging areas struggle to provide care in a timely manner.

Sweden Democrats often blame the system’s struggles on immigrants, especially visibly Muslim ones. Unemployment for the foreign born is 15 percent, compared to 3.5 percent for Swedish born.[82] Yet daunting headlines in “alternative media” like “Sweden: Around 90 Percent of 2015 Migrants with Residency Status Are Unemployed”[83] can insinuate that refugees are one of the core strains on welfare. Because of the perceived strain on social services by unemployed migrants who receive an unfair share of benefits, a discourse of welfare chauvinism has set in. This term has been used in the Nordic context to describe a primarily right-wing belief that better social services should be privileged for the native-born over “undeserving” unemployed newcomers from certain cultures.[84] A perfect illustration of this is a 2010 Sweden Democrat campaign video showing a group of burqa-clad women with strollers outrunning a pensioner for government assistance.[85]

Various respondents told stories of the “injustices” of a system giving more to immigrants than native Swedes. A Sweden Democrat in Trelleborg explained that his 93-year-old father had to pay 37,000 Swedish Krona ($2800 USD)  for dentures, whereas he claimed a refugee would only need to pay 50 Krona ($5 USD).[86 ]The dentures examples was brought up in several interviews, underscoring its viral spread. Yet again, trying to verify such stories is a challenge when the search terms lead to either more “alternative media” sensationalism or government statements of general benefits that neither confirm nor deny specific cases.

Interviewees also discussed strains on education and personal experiences with refugees in the classroom. An official in Svedala discussed the challenges of teaching computer science to non-Swedish refugees.[87] A Sweden Democrat official in Hörby described why he put his daughters in a new school in Lund: “When they went to summer break, there were 15 pupils in her class. And after summer break, there were 22. They got seven new arrivals in her class. They were young men from Afghanistan, just put in her class. And they didn’t speak the language. They were illiterate. They couldn’t write. The whole educational framework, so to speak, in that class was totally demolished.”[88] Given that 70,000 children, 35,000 of whom were unaccompanied minors, sought asylum in 2015 alone, the increase of refugee children in Swedish schools impacts the education experiences of both local children and refugee children—who might not be getting the trauma, language, or integration support they need.[89]

Ultimately, several interviewees perceived Muslim immigrants as not only poorly integrated, but choosing to live in non-Swedish speaking “parallel societies” and not working because of cultural preference, not economic or prejudicial disadvantage. A Hörby council member explained his belief that previous waves of non-Muslim immigrants wanted to work and become Swedes, but not so with Muslims:

“I think that the recent waves of immigration, they are from a totally different cultural standpoint […] And you can’t ignore that. For many Somalis, they consider work as a punishment. For instance, they don’t see the virtues of working to earn your own money. It made me see that they don’t want to work in Sweden. They are just staying here and making a lot of babies. We have a welfare system that is very generous for families having babies. So they are flourishing here.”[90]

“Alternative media” sources and political rhetoric from groups like the Sweden Democrats can frame Muslims as culturally incompatible by contrasting them to other generations of “assimilated” immigrants that had come in smaller numbers or from different (but typically European Christian) cultures. This points to the deeper issue of whether or not Sweden Democrats see the presence of Muslims as compatible with Swedish society.

Who Belongs? Islam and Swedish Identity

The Sweden Democrats portray themselves as defenders of the “people’s home” (folkhommet), a term used in the 1930s by the Social Democrats in their effort to mobilize support for a robust, class-crossing welfare regime. But who gets to be part of the “people” when the number of non-Native Swedes is growing? Of Swedes, 19 percent were foreign-born in 2018 compared to 11 percent in 2,000.[91] Muslims make up about eight percent of Sweden’s population, or around 800,000.[92] Many Muslims came from labor migration in the 1970s, refugee crises prior to 2015, or are children of those two groups.[93]Approximately half are secularized,[94] one-third are school age or younger, and about 110,000 are part of a registered Muslim organization.[95] Beyond this, reliable statistics about the makeup and practices of the Muslim population are limited.

Yet certain “types” of Muslims (and for some, all Muslims) are not included in the Sweden Democrats’ vision of “the people” in “the people’s home.” However, the defining characteristics of who the “people” are and what a Swede is are not entirely clear, even to Sweden Democrats.

What is a Swede? 

When asked during interviews what it means to be a Swede, Sweden Democrats sighed and mentioned love of fika (coffee-driven snack breaks), a strong work ethic, respect for nature, speaking Swedish, and equality between the sexes. Those aside, each respondent had a difficult time describing what exactly it meant to be Swedish, which turns out to be part of what it means to be Swedish. One interview subject brought up the concept of lagom. Roughly translated as “equal” or “just the right amount,” the word was described to me by a party chairman in Trelleborg as being that sense when Swedes expect you to do something but won’t tell you to do it, it is just what should be done. This makes it more difficult for newcomers (or those born in immigrant enclaves) to discern how exactly to be Swedish. When asked what is Swedish culture and what its rules might be if you were to explain them, the chairman paused, then reflected on the reality that Swedish culture is rather muted. Unlike Islam, which has proscribed religious rules for being and living, Swedes do not have rules so much an intuitive understanding of their mild-mannered culture. As such, he said Swedes embody “lagom.”[96] The word is popular and came up several times in interviews. Lagom has been described as permeating “all facets of the Swedish psyche.”[97]

Swedes have generally been uninvolved in conflict, instead asserting their tolerance of others, acceptance of refugees, and humanitarian efforts. This has backfired, says one man in Klippan’s local board meeting of Sweden Democrats: “There’s a famous person who writes historical books and he said that the Swedes are ‘peace damaged.’ We look to the neighbor countries and they have been through something that binds them together as a people.”[98] The Sweden Democrats I interviewed did not think Swedes have a strong culture, making them vulnerable to cultures that are. One speaker in the local council who served on the education and social welfare boards in Hörby said, “I think the Swedish culture is a weak culture because we don’t have so many strongly defined do’s and don’ts. We are in danger from becoming run over by some more strong culture. I think that Islam is a strong culture because it has a very strong moral codes, strong beliefs.”[99]

In turn, according to some Sweden Democrats, the lack of specificity on what it means to be a Swede makes it difficult for non-Swedes from non-Western cultures to assimilate because they don’t know the rules. Despite efforts to build an egalitarian multiculturalism, anthropologists have noted there is a tendency in Swedish political culture for equality (jämlikhet) to connote sameness (likhet).[100] Thus, some Swedes perceive that being too “different” can threaten the equality that the “people’s home” relies on. At median growth projections, according to Pew, Muslims would not approach anything close to a majority. By 2050, they would comprise around 21 percent of the population,[101] but some Sweden Democrats fear that Islam, and what they perceive as a distinct, strong, rule-driven religious culture, threatens to displace or dominate secular Swedish culture—making it wholly different in the process.

Radical Islam vs. Muslims

Sweden takes civic secularism seriously[102] and surveys indicate it is one of the least religious countries in the world.[103] Sweden Democrats interviewed were no exception, and several expressed a distaste for all organized religion, but especially public displays of religiosity, like the burqa. There were split feelings amongst respondents about whether or not Islam is compatible with Sweden, based primarily around whether or not the respondent believed Islam could be practiced privately or if it was inherently political and public.

Some respondents asserted there is a difference between radical Islamists and Muslims. In the small town of Klippan, I was able to sit in on the board meeting of the local Sweden Democrats. The chairman, a businessman and army reservist who had served in Bosnia, expressed, “You really got to distinguish two different parts: Islam as a religion and Islam as a political agenda, which is going to extremism.” When I asked why others in the room had joined the party, one woman said, “For me it was the big problems in immigration. And I am really afraid that the Muslims will take over Sweden in the future if we can’t stop it.” The chairman quickly chimed in, “The extremists, you mean?” “Yes, the extremists” she said.[104] In some ways, this correction felt like a reaction to having a researcher in the room, and some respondents uncomfortably speaking in English, yet interviewees in different cities noted they remind other party members not to make blanket statements about Muslims—perhaps to educate against blatant xenophobic language that could threaten the party’s reputation. As one Sweden Democrat respondent in Malmö said, “People shouldn’t shout out stuff that doesn’t make sense, like ‘Muslims are taking over.’ This won’t help the party. They need more sophisticated politicians, less crazies.”[105]

Other respondents felt there was no distinction between Islamists and practicing Muslims—all were incompatible with Swedish life and even democracy. To illustrate, many pointed to Sharia law in Islam, which they see blending the political and spiritual. The party chairman in Svedala described Islam as inherently being a political ideology:

“I do not think [Islam] is compatible with Western democracy because Islamic law is a lot more far reaching than, for example, the Christian Ten Commandments. Islamic law covers a lot more of everyday life. And if you have a law that is set by God… I have seen studies that say that about half of Muslims in the West believe that religious law is above democratic manmade law. And if that is the case, you know, what’s the point of democracy? Why elect someone to make laws if you already have laws that govern important aspects of life? So I do think there is a problem with Islam and democracy.”

A Sweden Democrat from Hörby also insisted, “There is no reformed Islam. And maybe sometimes people speak about moderates or reform Islam. But there is one Islam. And when you talk to Muslims themselves, they acknowledge that there’s only one[…] The Quran, it’s a warrior manual…It’s like, kill your enemies, take their wives and rape them. Sell them as slaves. It’s spreading the word with the sword.”[106]

There is no party consensus around whether Muslims are completely incompatible with Swedish culture or whether a significant number might be able to assimilate, but all agree that the increased rate of Muslim immigration makes integration impossible. In Staffanstorp, where a council of Moderates and a Sweden Democrat made news by voting to ban burqas in schools,[107] a councilman said, “I think Islam is compatible with Sweden. It is. The big problem is that it’s going too fast.”[108]

Integration and Assimilation 

Some Sweden Democrats interviewed were immigrants from Poland and Iran. Another had an Italian immigrant parent. Many insisted that they had immigrant friends and that they were open minded enough to talk to this potentially judgmental American researcher. Almost all argued that the new waves of Muslim refugees could not assimilate because there were simply too many, arriving too fast to possibly integrate into Swedish society. Some believed smaller numbers of Muslims could have integrated, but when Muslim communities were large, their “powerful” “non-Western” culture remained intact making Swedish language unnecessary and unspoken.

Given economic realities, many immigrants end up in poor neighborhoods with other immigrants. The council member in Staffanstorp said, “They get put in ghettoes [by the government]. They don’t feel Swedish. They feel left out and get into criminality.” Not discrediting the impact of prejudice, he reflected that these immigrants might self-select into these neighborhoods to “move where they feel at home.”[109] To this point, debates are underway about the nature of state-supported religious education and how it impacts assimilation;[110] many Muslim immigrants send their children to religious schools less for religion and more to escape disrespect, racial prejudice, or a general lack of cultural understanding at municipal schools.[111] Some interviewees thought the multi-faceted failure of integration, a result of both poverty and “two-way” prejudice, makes it even more difficult for immigrants and their children in the long term, who “might dream of their home countries, which they might see as superior.”[112]

Yet, at the heart of the assimilation debate is the issue of gender. Across the board, interview subjects felt that certain customs among some Muslims such as gender segregation, marriage practices, and treatment of women was incompatible with something as central to Swedish culture as gender equality. A council member from Hörby described his belief: “I fear that this natural assimilation is not possible for Muslims because they don’t tolerate assimilation. Basically. For instance, if a man meets a Muslim woman, it’s not possible for him to marry her. But if I were to marry, I must convert to Islam. And it’s not possible for that woman to become Christian.”[113] I asked if the 1970s wave of Turkish labor immigrants[114] had integrated into Swedish society and  he insisted their fewer numbers and secularism promoted by Turkish leader Kemal Atatürk mitigated the impact of Islam. Studies show, however, that more time spent in Sweden is a core factor in increasing labor force participation of female immigrants, though origin country culture does impact their rate.[115]

Some women say they join the Sweden Democrats because they fear rape by Muslim migrants or because they think Islam is a cultural threat to gender equality. In the Klippan town hall, one woman said she joined the party because she wanted her daughters to be strong and independent, citing arranged marriage in certain Muslim cultures that had come to Sweden.[116] In another story, a female former Sweden Democrat in a Stockholm suburb, left the party with her husband to join an even more right-wing party modeled after Germany’s Alternative for Deutschland called the Alternative for Sweden, which has no seats in the Riksdag. She felt the Sweden Democrats were sexist and leaving women out of power but also not tough enough on immigration by not calling to repatriate migrants. She thinks Islam was simply incompatible with Swedish society, which is why Muslims chose to and wanted to live in unassimilated, non-Swedish speaking parallel communities and “no-go zones.”

She brought up an experience of going to a bath house during a “women’s only” time, which she thought of as an un-Swedish concession to Muslims. Like many Western countries, swimming pools are mixed-gender in Sweden. The local council had agreed to make certain hours of the bath house “women only” to accommodate cultural and religious needs of Muslim women who do not want men to see them in immodest dress. When she went on the women’s-only day, she described fights with Muslim women. She said she pointed out the Swedish norm of not wearing clothes in the sauna for hygienic reasons. She described their response: “They told me to my face: We don’t listen to you. We don’t care about you. We’re sitting in the sauna with clothes on. And you can do nothing about it.”[117] While this appears to be a dramatic retelling, pools and bath houses have become a hot button and newsworthy issue in Sweden. The debate has brought up questions on how to accommodate different cultural practices regarding gender that might conflict with the more progressive, secular status quo. Swedes are debating if it is appropriate to make religious accommodations like gender-separated swimming in public pools, with those in favor supporting the needs of a multicultural society and those opposing encouraging cultural assimilation.[118]

Europe, Multiculturalism, and the Sweden Democrats

Sweden Democrats do not deny that Europe has historically experienced the movement of people and cultures. Yet, one interview subject reflected that the recent influx of Muslims is non-European, making it different: “We’re going to cope with them, but we have to find the means to make them European in style, because in Europe, there have been people coming for millennia and they have all, so to speak, formed their own nations and their own societies. I think this time it’s a danger. These volumes [of people] are going to change Europe for good.”[119]

Sweden Democrats are aware of other European parties fighting to counter Muslim immigration, “political correctness,” and the elite; a few get a newsletter from the party each day telling them about the “family” abroad.[120] A couple from the Alternative for Sweden advocated adopting the sort of hardline anti-immigration policies overseen by populist leaders in Italy, Hungary, and Poland.[121] Another party leader in Haninge enumerated his respect for President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.[122]

Like other European countries with growing right-wing populist movements, Sweden is asking itself what egalitarian multiculturalism looks like if immigrants live in “parallel” societies. As a Sweden Democrat who immigrated from Iran pointed out, “When I was growing up, there was no reason to define your Swedish culture. Nobody talked about that. But today, people are questioning  a multicultural society. People are questioning what is the dominant culture.”[123]Another party member from Svedala asked, “The society we have today, Sweden? I’m not even sure it should be called multiculturalism. We have parallel cultures that don’t mix.”[124] As more and more immigrants grow up in what police call “vulnerable areas,” unintegrated in Swedish economy or culture, more questions emerge as to what the Swedish “mainstream” culture is and how and if immigrants should assimilate to it.

Sweden Democrats believe their party will continue to grow, especially if it is continuously left out of the national conversation; they semi-joked they were a political culture not included in “politically correct” multiculturalism. One official cited a beer hall cancelling an event reservation once they discovered it was for Sweden Democrats.[125] The couple from the Alternative for Sweden funds some of the alternative media and is using the building from their former label factory to make a meeting space for those “discriminated against” for their beliefs. Many interviewees pointed out that the Sweden Democrats were not invited to participate in a recent national working group on crime in which all the other major parties participated.[126] When this happens, Sweden Democrats retort they are just “ordinary people, not bred politicians”[127] trying to solve problems but that the dominant parties try to squash their dissent. The party chairman in Klippan invoked Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg’s idea of “Demokrator,” a Swedish word that blends “democracy” and “dictatorship” to describe a government that poses as a democracy, but like a dictatorship, suppresses anti-establishment speech. He said leaving out the third largest party from conversations gets people suspicious, and thus Sweden Democrats “are benefiting and earning and growing by the fact that [the establishment parties] don’t want to involve us.”[128]


The humanitarian doctrine of “Swedish Exceptionalism” might have been a point of national pride and a marker of Swedish identity. That capacity has now been challenged by taking in the most refugees per capita of any European country. As the government moderates its more ambitious and idealistic commitments, what will inspire Swedes as time goes on? What are sources of national pride as they face 21st century challenges of accommodating aging populations, strained welfare systems, and greater ethnic and religious diversity? What duty do they have to “the other?” What are Swedish values?

Interviewees saw themselves as Swedish humanitarians, but by other means. They expressed they did not hate Muslim refugees and wanted to offer significant aid in their countries of origin. They stressed that they needed to fix their own existing problems before inviting new challenges in the country. These “plain talk” populist talking points challenge the reputations of other parties for charity and humanitarianism by offering alternative policies that satisfy Swedish values of peace, tolerance, and humanitarian efforts—just on other territory. This does not mitigate deep prejudices and xenophobia in the ranks of Sweden Democrats. As for Muslim immigrants already in Sweden, they will continue to confront Islamophobia and discrimination as the Sweden Democrats continue to hold up the 2015 refugee crisis, its daunting statistics, and visible media spectacle as the epitome of government failure.

Socioeconomic explanations for crime, poverty, or strains on the welfare system can give hope to more progressive voters that there are technocratic solutions, fulfilling their commitment to values of tolerance, equality, justice, charity, and human rights. Yet there are many ways for a society to understand and fulfill these values. Sweden Democrats think these values have not only material and economic dimensions but also cultural ones—inviting uncomfortable conversations about cultural differences which at best can be constructive but at worst can invite ugly racism. Right now in Sweden, there is a battle between parties to define and own these values. One cannot write off the Swedish Democrats’ attempts to persuade a growing number of voters of their own particular interpretation.

As indicated by these interviewees, the spirit of lagom might not sustain a cohesive national culture especially when other new, competing cultures—nationalist or Muslim—disrupt the status quo whether by Internet or immigration. The Sweden Democrats themselves are challenging a political status quo and a centrist consensus, by offering something different with new faces. In an age of confirmation bias, where at least some dirt can be found on any political party with just a click, voters can more easily accept overlooking egregious past rhetoric or affiliations. Many new voters supporting the Sweden Democrats appear to be attracted to this new political alternative as they experience what can feel like new dynamics of immigration, crime, religiosity, lagging social services, or cultural clash. They feel the Sweden Democrats are slowing down the change, instead of hastening it and leaving them behind–not unlike other populist parties in this Brookings series.

Establishment parties risk distancing themselves from average and prospective Sweden Democrats if they downplay the challenges of immigration or dismiss perceptions of social problems in immigrant neighborhoods as purely racist extremism. Similarly, assuming that Sweden Democrats are “misinformed” dupes, instead of people with fundamental disagreements (however “illiberal”) on definitions and values, might lead to reductionist thinking that fact-checking or banning “alternative media” on social platforms will “solve” the problem of populism. In turn, Sweden Democrats must take seriously and acknowledge that some of their amplified rhetoric can inspire xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism which risks turning violent, as it has in other parts of Europe.[129]

Only if the Sweden Democrats have any real governing power will their rhetoric be tested against the results they create, and considering their growing popular support, such an outcome isn’t nearly as implausible as it might have once seemed. Until that happens, if it ever does, there will likely be a near continuous stream of sensational stories about cultural clashes with Muslims, outrageous examples of government welfare injustice, and blistering critiques of mainstream parties and leaders. As the Klippan party chairman said, “We always try to show the crises. We always want to push the panic button.” This could mean that in the media and rhetoric of the Swedish Democrats, Muslim immigration will continue to feel like a crisis, even well after the crisis subsides.


The author would like to thank Anders Hellström for his helpful suggestions and feedback, interviewees who shared their networks and time, and her hosts in Helsingborg for opening their home.


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