Swedish Racism: Engineering a False Image of Democratic Solidarity

Essay 3 (part two)
Swedish systemic racism: An academic perspective

After completing my work at the Board, I returned to my position at Mid-Sweden University and continued to participate in public debates regarding racism and the political oppression of minorities in general and Muslims in particular. Writing against anti-Muslimism and racism was not appreciated and even the seemingly free media showed little concern about the increasing tides of racism in the country. As mentioned in my second essay in this series, after the end of my governmental investigation in 2006 and the seizure of power by the neoliberal Alliance government, systemic racism was reinforced. Even the Social Democratic party did not do anything with my investigation’s suggestions for combating systemic racism in the country. Instead, because of decreasing electoral support for the Social Democrats, this party supported systemic racism and wanted to abandon its more inclusive Palme-era policies. Many researchers who had contributed to the governmental investigation uttered difficulties they faced in their universities because of their participation in the “Kamali investigation.” This made me more convinced about the need for antiracist education and research in a time of growing political racism in the country.

I started working for the establishment of a global and antiracist profile in the Social Work program at Mid-Sweden University. This created a huge opposition and led to internal conflicts at the department. My adversaries tried to mobilize colleagues and students against the new profile. Fortunately, my name and reputation, which attracted many students to Mid-Sweden University (which was a marginal university in the northern part of the country), prevented my opponents from being successful. However, they continued their opposition to the anti-racist profile and toward me as the one responsible for its existence. The leadership of the university told me that they were aware of the conflict but that they wanted me to continue since the Social Work specialization at our university had become very popular and was attracting students from across the country. A few colleagues, who were led by a professor and the head of the department who saw their privileges threatened, started using different tactics for delegitimizing the profile and me. They had help from the local leader of The Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF), who worked at the department. She had negative attitudes towards our antiracist education and both me and many students have several times reported her to the head of the department and to the Dean of the university, but nothing happened because of her powerful position at the university. On the contrary, when she together with a couple of her allies at the department reported me to the university for “dictatorial leadership” in autumn 2011, I was called to the Dean who warned me for not being a democrat and that I had to work in accordance with “Swedish values”. He also informed me that the University had been several times contacted by politicians who accused me for “brainwashing students” with my lectures and books.

Fortunately, the Dean quickly left his position and thanks to the Vice Chancellor’s support for our attractive profile, the opposition was temporarily halted. This, along with the increasing popularity of our specialization, provided the antiracist education profile a short time to flourish. It became one of the most attractive academic specializations in the country. However, SULF and its leader, together with a couple of colleagues and external racists who were powerful agents, continued their opposition by trying to influence students, colleagues and university leadership. Many students warned me and my colleagues about such individuals’ attacks against me and other colleagues who worked to develop our antiracist profile. Students have been told that they would not get any job in Sweden due to the antiracist emphasis of their Social Work training.

Unfortunately, the political development in Sweden during these years went against our antiracist profile and the antiracist movement in the country. The increasing racism that led to the entrance of the racist party, The Sweden Democrats (SD), into the parliament in 2010 and its increased electorate support from 7.5 to almost 18 percent in the election of 2018, provided racist groups within the university increasing opportunities to become harsher on antiracist colleagues and programs. In regard to increasing racism, I was interviewed by a local journal in the city of Östersund, where Mid-Sweden University is located, and said that the real danger from racist groups was not exclusively coming from SD, but from the established parties, which are going to adopt SD’s racist party program based on their populism. One of the professors who was against our antiracist profile said to me that my observation was not ok to say publicly against established parties and that I had “disturbed sentiments” among leading persons at the university. When I mentioned to him my constitutional right to publicly utter my opinion which was based on my European research, he warned me of not believing in the “political correct world” but considering the powerful centers where our destinies are decided.

The new Vice Chancellor (VC) of Mid Sweden University who took office in early 2017 and who on his Facebook supported one of the racist Sweden Democrats’ (SD) allied parties, the Christ Democrats, started his campaign for eliminating our global and antiracist education. He started by ordering the “total stop” of accepting new students to the Social Work program and ordering an investigation against me and the antiracist academic specialization. He did this despite the evidence that our specialization was one of the most attractive educational programs of social work in Sweden. The investigation was conducted by a company called Kontura International during 2017. The investigation, which was based on interviews with colleagues at the department and the review of many documents, did not fulfill the VC’s desires or support the VC’s campaign. On the contrary, I received huge support from my colleagues at the department. I reported the VC for racism and discrimination, which was reported in the press. VC ordered the university to not doing anything about it.

During the same time, I had a research project on neoliberalism and social work in which more than 35 researchers from the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden participated and the results became published in the spring of 2018 in an edited book by Routledge. One of my colleagues who had almost daily contact with the university leadership and who was one of the sincere supporter of our profile, hinted to me that the university leadership in general and the VC in particular were not happy about the book and that the book reinforces their understanding of me as a communist and Islamist who stigmatizes Sweden.

Several months later, I had a dispute with a doctoral student who stereotyped Iranian and Middle Eastern women as ignorant and backwards. A few weeks later the VC reported me to the police because the PhD-student, who was aware of my conflict with the VC, falsely reported to the VC that she had heard that I had threatened to kill the VC. The police dropped the charge just after a few hours because of the lack of any evidence about the accusations against me. Notwithstanding, the VC decided to suspend me from my job and start an “internal investigation.” As a reaction, my colleagues reported the VC to the court for his dictatorial and unfair accusations against me and published the ordeal in the press. The Mid Sweden University scandal was frequently discussed in the media.

However, the VC and his faked investigation and accusations failed and the State Responsibility Committee (Statens ansvarsnämnd), which is the Swedish government’s employers court, rejected any objectivity in those accusations and ordered the university to change its decision of suspending me from my job. However, I decided to leave my position at Mid-Sweden University in early 2019, a few months after the court’s decision, as a protest against increasing systemic racism at Mid-Sweden University; this increasing systemic racism does not tolerate any opposition. So did a couple of my colleagues at the department too. The VC, who had presented himself and the university as agents of “regional economic development” in “close cooperation with regional companies,” had seen me as a danger to the white neoliberal Swedish society and its structural and institutional racism. As a result of changing the leadership of the university and forcing many antiracist persons to leave the university, he succeeded to adjust the university to the “academic-industrial-military complex”, which in a post-9/11 world considers non-Western individuals with Muslim background as a “danger within”, as Giroux argues in his work.

My case and the climate within academic institutions is by no means unique. Back in 1993, Leslie Stuart discussed the “diminished capacity” of universities to be free and critical institutions; Stuart argued that universities in have been part of the Cold War and provided their services to the military. The post-9/11 world is witnessing increasing anti-Muslim and racist sentiments, as Giroux (2017), myself (2009), and many other critical scholars have shown. In the era of the frontless “war on terror” immigrants in general and Muslims in particular are not to be trusted (Kamali, 2015)and the securitization of “Western societies” necessitates exclusions of critical and antiracist scholars from universities, favoring the access of the white national affluent population to scholarly positions. This is based on the concept known as the “coloniality of power” (Quijano, 2008). As Gutiérrez Rodríguez (2016) argues in reference to Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus, universities reflect deeply entrenched social inequalities marked by class, race, disability, and migration. Universities are privileged sites for the reproduction of white national elites (Pusser & Marginson, 2013).

Positioning me as “unwanted” in Swedish academic institutions has little to do with my person as an academic, but with what I am, namely a person with immigrant/Muslim background who is engaged in antiracist research, education, and activism. The racist acts and practices of Mid- Sweden University’s leadership should be understood in a wider historical and political context. I am currently analyzing interviews, which I have conducted among other academics with immigrant backgrounds in Sweden. The situation is unbearable for many who say that you have to either accept the racist and neoliberal hierarchical system at the university or put yourself at risk for many years of confrontations, isolation and accusations of being a deviant and incompetent academic. This can happen because many academics – whites and non-whites – keep silent about institutional and structural racism in the academia. As Albert Einstein says: “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.”

Although the Swedish political and institutional racism has done everything in its power for isolating me and other antiracists, I feel myself more empowered than ever. This is not only because I am continuing doing my antiracist research and publications, but also because, as Einstein puts it, “my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice has preserved me from feeling isolated.”

Masoud Kamali
Uppsala, January 2020

Masoud Kamali has received his professorship in Sociology (Uppsala University), Social Work (Mid Sweden University), Middle Eastern Studies (South Denmark University) and International Migration and Ethnic Relations (Stockholm University). His recent publications include: Neoliberalism, Nordic Welfare States and Social Work (Routledge, 2018) and “Revolutionary Social Work: Promoting sustainable Justice” (Critical and Radical Social Work, 7(3), November 2019).

Swedish Racism: A False Image of Democratic Solidarity

Essay 3 (part one)

Swedish systemic racism: An academic perspective

The ways Swedish structural and institutional racism functions and hides itself behind the old mantel of its reputation—as a country of solidarity and equality—is discussed in this essay by providing examples of my own personal experiences in Swedish academia. In my first essay some months back I elaborated how Sweden has tried to hide the structural and institutional racism behind its famous image of solidarity and equality. Although the Swedish welfare state has never been free from white racism, indeed quite the contrary, there have been individuals in the leadership of Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, such as Olof Palme, who tried to combat racism both nationally and internationally. I wrote that twenty years after the assassination of Olof Palme, it became crystal clear to me that members of the democracy that I once believed in would invest far more energy and resources into denying harsh inequities than becoming the democracy that Palme stood and died for. Swedish political and academic institutions, which bear much responsibility for the reproduction of racism in the country, “shoot the messenger”, as Swedes say. In other words, instead of enacting policies and practices that combat racism, there has been a systematic response to discredit me and numerous others who took action against Swedish racism. (On systemic racism theory, see here)

In my second essay I presented the growing political mobilization and rhetoric against antiracism. This included increased character assassination of me and delegitimization of my governmental investigation on structural discrimination in Sweden as well as mainstream political attempts to situate disenfranchised immigrants as blame-worthy agents who caused their own structural discrimination and marginalization. In my second essay I also wrote about the growing transitions of mainstream political parties (including the Social Democrats) to be aligned with a far-right wing political agenda. This is a period during which politicians, who once offered moral and ethical political arguments about the human/civil rights of immigrants, embrace the ideology of realpolitik.

In this essay (Part one), I focus upon the Swedish university and higher education, as well as the role these institutions play in the reproduction of systemic racism and discrimination against racialized instructors, researchers, and students.

I was born in a middle-class family in Iran during the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled from 1941 until 1979. As many know, this Shah was overthrown in 1979 by the Iranian Revolution. Starting to study sociology in Tabriz University provided me the opportunity to understand the mechanisms behind socioeconomic injustices covered by the glamorous façade of the Shah’s regime. I was very soon drawn into students’ protest movements and subsequently arrested by SAVAK – Sazman-e Etelaat Va Amniat Keshvar (Organization of Intelligence and Homeland Security) in early 1977, tortured and after a very short trial in a military court I was sentenced and jailed until the victory of the revolution in 1979. Continuing my political activities against the new Islamic regime and losing many of my friends in arbitrary executions, forced me to leave the country in 1987. Arriving in Sweden as a political refugee provided me with a new identity and social status, namely being a “refugee” at the bottom of the social hierarchy. I started working as cleaner, janitor and such. Simultaneously, I completed the Swedish requirements necessary for university studies. I had to do so because the Swedish Central Bureau for Higher Education refused to accept my credentials from my earlier university studies in Iran.

I began by studying Sociology at Linköping University and simultaneously Social Work at Stockholm University. I completed my studies in sociology and Master’s Degree in Social Work in 1991 and started working as a social worker in several municipalities. I applied for PhD studies in sociology three times and two times my applications were turned down, because the committee assumed that I had “language problems” with writing a dissertation. More specifically, the committee argued: “based on Kamali’s language problems, he could not be able to write his dissertation in due time”. Except for two members of the committee, who rejected the “language argument”, no one else had any contact with me in order to be able to evaluate my language abilities. I was in contact with a professor with an American background at the Department of Sociology and told him that I was working as a municipal social worker with many Swedish families and that I had never heard anybody complaining about my language ability. He told me that: “You know, you are Iranian, an immigrant, and you have written a Master’s Thesis, which is not appreciated by Swedes”. My Master’s Thesis, titled “Within Social Work Offices”, was a critical analysis of the Swedish municipal authorities’ discrimination against immigrant families. This was not welcomed by professors who saw themselves as the “guardians of the Swedish model.” Thanks to the efforts of the previously mentioned professor and an associate professor with Chilean background who evaluated my Master’s Thesis as excellent and accused the committee of having racist attitudes, I was accepted as a PhD student in the Department of Sociology, at Uppsala University in 1993. However, the acceptance was a compromise and the committee decided also that “Kamali has no right to salary during his PhD studies at the department”.

Initially, one of the professors who had been critical of my application was assigned as my supervisor! He very soon said that he was not able to supervise me since I “did not properly understand Weber”. This statement was made because in my dissertation outline I had criticized Max Weber—a famous founding white Christian scholar of sociology—for his misinterpretation of Islamic societies. I was assigned another supervisor. Because of the lack of graduate fellowship income, I had to work both as social worker in an Uppsala municipality and on a research project at the Department of Law in order to finance my PhD studies. Notwithstanding such problems, I successfully completed my dissertation in 1995. Writing my dissertation in such a short time depended partly on my hard work to counteract the falseness of the institutional racism of some at my department, and partly because I had already completed many necessary courses prior to the Phd committee’s decision. Significantly, my dissertation was published as a book with an excellent introduction by Bryan S. Turner, one of the world´s leading sociologists of religion, who considered the dissertation as one of the best sociological analysis of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Aware of the existing systemic racism in Swedish academia, which would probably prevent me from getting a job due to my non-west-centric research on Iran and other Muslim countries, I had to pursue a more accepted research path on popular topics such as immigrant integration. Based on one of my publications regarding the integration of immigrants in Sweden titled “Distorted Integration: Clientaization of immigrants in Sweden,” I was hired by the National Board of Health and Welfare in Sweden (Socialstyrelsen) to conduct research on the “cultural role” of immigrant social workers who worked with immigrant clients. I very soon realized that the Board considered immigrants to be “different cultural beings”, who need “culturally competent social workers.” Contrary to the Board’s expectations, the study showed that many clients did not appreciate having social workers with immigrant backgrounds who possessed so-called “cultural competency.” These clients indicated that these workers were harsher on their immigrant clients than native Swedish social workers. Social workers with immigrant backgrounds, on the other hand, said that they felt forced to be harsher toward clients with immigrant backgrounds because they thought that their jobs could be considered not necessary if they behaved like the white social workers with Swedish backgrounds. I was called to a meeting with the head of the Social Work section at the Board who ordered me to not publish the results. They called my findings “non-scientific” and accused me of assuming that social workers with a Swedish background were being racists. I did not accept their unjust exercise of power and told them that the report was a scientific product, that the Board had all the empirical materials, and that if they wanted, they could analyze the material. They did not accept my suggestion and I decided to publish the results of the study as a book.

Since that book’s publication, it has become a staple in social Work education in Sweden. (to be continued in part two)

Masoud Kamali
Uppsala, January 2020

Masoud Kamali has received his professorship in Sociology (Uppsala University), Social Work (Mid Sweden University), Middle Eastern Studies (South Denmark University) and International Migration and Ethnic Relations (Stockholm University). His recent publications include: Neoliberalism, Nordic Welfare States and Social Work (Routledge, 2018) and “Revolutionary Social Work: Promoting sustainable Justice” (Critical and Radical Social Work, 7(3), November 2019).