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Opinion: Backlash over Eid well wishes shows the rise of ‘Culture Wars’ in Sweden

Few things agitate the anti-immigration right like the idea that Swedish customs, values and traditions are being undermined (or even replaced) due to the arrival of immigrants from “Other” parts of the world, writes Christian Christensen.

Opinion: Backlash over Eid well wishes shows the rise of 'Culture Wars' in Sweden
Complaints about a politician sending well wishes to Swedish Muslims on Eid show how Sweden is falling victim to so-called 'culture wars', argues our writer. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

The arguments behind the supposed suppression of Swedish traditions are rarely rooted in logic and fact, and almost always rooted in emotion, suggestion and over-simplification.

As the run-up to the 2022 Swedish elections begins to take shape, and as a clear national conservative bloc has developed on the Swedish political right, this component of the “Culture Wars” – the “politically correct”, multicultural Left being accused of undermining national identity – will likely be something that we see more and more.

No incident better crystallises this manufactured conflict than the discussions that took place after the Swedish Foreign Minister, Ann Linde, posted a message to Twitter recently in recognition of the celebrations for the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In the tweet, which included a picture of her holding a tray of baklava, Linde wrote: “Eid Mubarak to all who are celebrating. I hope that you all have a wonderful day with loved ones and that there is lots of baklava on offer!”

For this message, Linde received a significant volume of criticism on social media.

Given that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, Sweden has a significant Muslim population, and the holiday is one of the biggest on the Muslim calendar, one may ask why this tweet would anger some in Sweden?

First, the message of goodwill to Muslims from the Foreign Minister angered many simply because it was made. Nothing more.

When politicians in “Western” nations do anything to validate or normalise the culture or everyday experiences of Muslim citizens, they are regularly accused of undermining “national identity.” For these critics, national identity is a zero-sum-game where praise for Group X immediately means criticism of Group Y. So, when Linde recognised a Muslim holiday, that act was seen as an attack on, and diminishment of, Christian “Swedishness” and culture. It’s an odd line of thinking that suggests that the “national culture” people wish to protect is so weak that even recognising the very existence of other religious cultures is a threat.

This opposition to the celebration of other religious cultures was exacerbated by a second factor: that the end of Ramadan, and Linde’s message, coincided with the Christian religious holiday, Ascension Day. That Linde offered Muslims her wishes, but not Christians, was held up as an example of how Swedish culture was being swamped by alien invaders. 

Now, I’ve lived in Sweden for 15 years, and I cannot remember anyone – let alone a Swedish politician – ever wishing me a “Happy Ascension Day”. Nor can I remember anyone criticising a politician for not wishing citizens a “Happy Ascension Day”. Ascension Day is a national holiday in Sweden best known for giving people a paid day off work to drink and have a barbecue.

But, because Linde chose to recognise what is perhaps the biggest holiday in the Swedish Muslim world rather than what is perhaps one of least well-known holidays in the Swedish Christian world, she was accused of PC pandering. In the manufactured Culture Wars, there is no Christian holiday so small that it should ever take a back seat to even the biggest Muslim holiday. 

In one of the more ridiculous arguments, some critics said that Sweden is a secular country, and the state should not engage in any overt support for religion. You will have to forgive me if I wonder where these critics are when every politician wishes people a “Merry Christmas”. Or, why these critics remain oddly silent when the vast majority of official state holidays in Sweden – giving workers paid days off – are based on Christian holy days. It seems when many people say the state should “remain secular”, what they really mean is the state should avoid recognition of anything other than Christianity, and of Islam in particular.

We may look at this debate and dismiss it as a footnote in the broader Swedish social and political landscape. But that would be a mistake. 

The fight over defining national identity is one that will only become more important as the next election approaches. In recent years, we have seen a number of similar incidents, where the simple everyday lives of minorities living in Sweden have been pitched as proof of the decline and fall of broader Swedish culture. I have written about several of these incidents. A Swedish journalist complaining about not recognising her own country because the only shop open late at night was owned by a foreigner; outrage over a youth soccer tournament in Sweden not serving pork; online attacks against a woman selected to represent her town on a motorway billboard simply because she was veiled. 

As a whole, these seemingly idiosyncratic incidents combine to create a dangerous, unified discourse about which lives are allowed to be part of the fabric of Swedish society, and which are not. While we often focus on the role of the exceptional in art, politics or sports in the formation of national identity, it is the details of everyday life that play a large part in shaping who we are as a society. Recognising things like holidays is a part of that. 

Equating the simple act of wishing citizens of a different religion a happy holiday with a form of betrayal or rejection of identity is to tell those citizens that, no matter what they do, they will never be equals in the Swedish national project. Not exactly a Christian message… or a democratic one.

Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.

Member comments

  1. There are 2 billion Muslims in the world, it’s shocking to learn that some Swedes don’t like the Ramadan or Eid wishes.

    1. Hi Reda! I live in a small town outside of Orlando, Fl with dozens of Churches, but also a Mosque and a Hindu center. Contrary to the images of the dark underbelly in America, we are a tremendously multi-cultural nation. The town council here only restricted the early morning call to prayer at the mosque, and Churches cannot ring bells early either. Except for Native Americans, all other Americans are immigrants from somewhere else. Some Americans forget that, but we are truly a greater nation because of immigrants from all over the world.
      I liked the comment in the article that some Swedes ( and Americans) feel that complementing one culture negates another. Having lived in Sweden, I felt in the late 80’s a growing resentment among Swedes about immigration. I believe the left in Sweden labeled anyone questioning allowing large numbers of immigrants to Sweden racist hurt in the long run. The Sweden Democrats then became the only party in Sweden to challenge the notion of allowing large numbers immigrants in, but their arguments were based on racist tenants. Allowing Swedes to bring up the cost of assimilating immigrants with public housing, job training,etc. is not in and of itself racist. I am pro-immigration here in America, but sadly, so many people in the world live in poverty no nation can open their doors wide open and not expect chaos. I would never try and debate a fellow American about immigration by immediately insinuating having doubts about immigration automatically makes them racist. That would be condescending, and would be counterproductive. Good luck in Sweden. My wife is Swedish, and she thrives here in multi-cultural America. I think Sweden is a fabulous country, and is hopefully going to find a balance with regards to immigration. Swedes are very pragmatic, and I have high confidence in the nation to find a way to live with peace and respect for one another.

  2. Great article, Christian. Thanks! It sums up my POV perfectly, especially the line “It’s an odd line of thinking that suggests that the “national culture” people wish to protect is so weak that even recognising the very existence of other religious cultures is a threat”. The concept of ‘Swedishness’ is far deeper than just watching Kalle Anka every Xmas or sucking the brains out of crayfish in August.

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OPINION: Are tips in Sweden becoming the norm?

Should you tip in Sweden? Habits are changing fast thanks to new technology and a hard-pressed restaurant trade, writes James Savage.

OPINION: Are tips in Sweden becoming the norm?

The Local’s guide to tipping in Sweden is clear: tip for good service if you want to, but don’t feel the pressure: where servers in the US, for instance, rely on tips to live, waiters in Sweden have collectively bargained salaries with long vacations and generous benefits. 

But there are signs that this is changing, and the change is being accelerated by card machines. Now, many machines offer three preset gratuity percentages, usually starting with five percent and going up to fifteen or twenty. Previously they just asked the customer to fill in the total amount they wanted to pay.

This subtle change to a user interface sends a not-so-subtle message to customers: that tipping is expected and that most people are probably doing it. The button for not tipping is either a large-lettered ‘No Tip’ or a more subtle ‘Fortsätt’ or ‘Continue’ (it turns out you can continue without selecting a tip amount, but it’s not immediately clear to the user). 

I’ll confess, when I was first presented with this I was mildly irked: I usually tip if I’ve had table service, but waiting staff are treated as professionals and paid properly, guaranteed by deals with unions; menu prices are correspondingly high. The tip was a genuine token of appreciation.

But when I tweeted something to this effect (a tweet that went strangely viral), the responses I got made me think. Many people pointed out that the restaurant trade in Sweden is under enormous pressure, with rising costs, the after-effects of Covid and difficulties recruiting. And as Sweden has become more cosmopolitain, adding ten percent to the bill comes naturally to many.

Boulebar, a restaurant and bar chain with branches around Sweden and Denmark, had a longstanding policy of not accepting tips at all, reasoning that they were outdated and put diners in an uncomfortable position. But in 2021 CEO Henrik Kruse decided to change tack:

“It was a purely financial decision. We were under pressure due to Covid, and we had to keep wages down, so bringing back tips was the solution,” he said, adding that he has a collective agreement and staff also get a union bargained salary, before tips.

Yet for Kruse the new machines, with their pre-set tipping percentages, take things too far:

“We don’t use it, because it makes it even clearer that you’re asking for money. The guest should feel free not to tip. It’s more important for us that the guest feels free to tell people they’re satisfied.”

But for those restaurants that have adopted the new interfaces, the effect has been dramatic. Card processing company Kassacentralen, which was one of the first to launch this feature in Sweden, told Svenska Dagbladet this week that the feature had led to tips for the average establishment doubling, with some places seeing them rise six-fold.

Even unions are relaxed about tipping these days, perhaps understanding that they’re a significant extra income for their members. Union representatives have often in the past spoken out against tipping, arguing that the practice is demeaning to staff and that tips were spread unevenly, with staff in cafés or fast food joints getting nothing at all. But when I called the Swedish Hotel and Restaurant Union (HRF), a spokesman said that the union had no view on the practice, and it was a matter for staff, business owners and customers to decide.

So is tipping now expected in Sweden? The old advice probably still stands; waiters are still not as reliant on tips as staff in many other countries, so a lavish tip is not necessary. But as Swedes start to tip more generously, you might stick out if you leave nothing at all.