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OPINION & ANALYSIS

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 & ANALYSIS

‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
 
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
 
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
 
 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
 
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
 
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
 
Glad Påsk!
 
Midsommar drowning  
 
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
 
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
 
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
 
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.
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