Swedish Racism: False Images of Democracy (Part 2)

I wrote in my first essay 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 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 the 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.

Political mobilization against and demonizing of Kamali

Just a few months before the parliamentary election of 2006, I was contacted by one of my friends from the Christian Democratic Party who informed me about a hidden political mobilization against me. The goal of this mobilization was to demonize me and invalidate the governmental investigation of racism that I was leading. An email was circulated among the four right-wing political parties called “the Alliance” concerning “how to confront Kamali’s investigation” before the election. After internal discussions, they agreed on a strategy that consisted of (1) demonizing and disqualifying me by questioning my academic merits, (2) mentioning my immigrant/Iranian/Muslim background in the editorials of unaccountable right-wing and conservative newspapers, and, (3) publishing a document designed to question the scientific grounds of my recommendations for changing institutional and structural racism as well as structural discrimination in Sweden. A right-wing think-tank named Timbro was one of the organizations that implemented this strategy. Timbro, which defines itself as a think-tank for the market economy, paid Henrik Borg, who was described as “A 25-years-old lawyer and Eastern European specialist from Uppsala.” Borg published a report called “Your questions provide you the desired answers: Masoud Kamali, Mona Sahlin and politicization of Swedish governmental investigations,” within a framework they called “Mission Sweden 2006.”

The ensuing debates in the editorials of right-wing and conservative journals sought to redirect the discourse and the public focus from institutional and structural racism as obstacles for group integration (a change and emphasis created by my investigation) to earlier deliberations, which presented immigrants and their cultures as the major problem of integration. Attacks upon the investigation coupled with ad-hominem attacks upon me occurred on a daily basis. Such attacks intensified the closer to the election of 2006 we came. The alliance of political parties appointed Nyamko Sabuni, who is a woman with immigrant, African, and Muslim origins, as the candidate for Minister of Integration. Sabuni claimed that the problem of immigrant integration had nothing to do with racism and discrimination, but with immigrants’ unwillingness to adapt themselves to Swedish values.

Using individuals with an immigrant background in general and with Muslim background in particular, is an established strategy for xenophobic and racist governments in order to protect themselves from being accused of racism and legitimize their anti-Muslim and xenophobic policies. I conducted several national and international research projects on this common strategy and published the results among other publications in my book Racial Discrimination: Institutional Patterns and Politics. Sabuni was not only backed by openly racist parties (e.g., Sweden Democrats) and groups, but also by xenophobic groups and individuals within mainstream political parties. Increasing racism in Sweden has recently encouraged her to make a comeback in Swedish whitewashed politics as a nominee for the leadership of the Liberal Party. Even more, Sabuni has criticized her party for not cooperating with a racist party in Sweden.

I was shocked by mainstream parties’ rapid move to the right and their successive adjustment to “the spirit of the time,” namely increasing racism, xenophobia and populism in a country with a long history of “adjustment” to powerful political trends during its modern history. The establishment of the “State institute for Racial Biology” in early twentieth century, close cooperation and relationship with Nazi Germany from 1939 to the mid-40s, and maintaining good relations with both great powers of the Cold War are just a few illustrations of historical “adjustments”.

Social Democratic Party and increasing racism

When the election of 2006 approached and my team of governmental investigators and I were about to present the investigation’s final report on racism, I felt the hardening of the political climate. I understood that the cold racist winds sent shivers through politicians, including leading Social Democrats. Politicians started talking to me about the importance and necessity of “real politics” and about the difficulties and “burden” of being a politician in “such a difficult political period.” One illustration of this was when the Minister of Integration, Jens Orback, in a TV interview criticized my investigation for not providing “evidence” for the existence of institutional and structural discrimination in the country. The day after the interview I met him and criticized him for “lying.” I did so because in previous discussions with me he had indicated that the investigation was very important and had given the government “necessary instruments for changing the discriminatory systems in Sweden.” He said: “This is real politics Masoud, we are depending on people’s votes and not on researchers’ truths.” I told him about my belief in and imagination about the “Palme legacy” in Social Democratic Party. He answered: “It was another time, my friend, you should realize that.” On my way home I thought if Palme was still alive, what would he say about such political lies during a time of increasing injustices and racism that harm hundreds of thousands of people in such a small country.

Even the Social Democratic Party’s leadership and ideologues understood the usefulness of individuals with immigrant backgrounds, who would legitimate the Party’s growing xenophobic and restrictive immigration policies. One such person used by politicians was Nalin Pekgul, a woman with Kurdish background, who frequently participated in the public debate and warned of the “growing Islamism” in marginalized areas. She and her fellow party members, who have had political power in Sweden for almost 80 years, ignored their own role in creating disenfranchised areas and marginalization for many people in the country. Again, the responsibility for the marginalization and segregation of people with immigrant backgrounds was blamed on marginalized persons themselves as well as their religion and culture. A few politicians with immigrant backgrounds contacted me and felt very uncomfortable with the increasing racism within the party.

Whitewashing the political power

Already during the early days of my appointment as the lead governmental investigator, the Minister of Integration, Mona Sahlin, told me that she had received many letters and emails accusing her of allowing Muslims to influence the politics of the country. They saw me as a representative of a world conspiracy of Muslims calling for the Islamization of Sweden. Despite the critical storm against me, the Minister of Integration, Mona Sahlin, gave her sincere support to me and the investigation. She also openly declared that as “one of the best qualified researchers in the country,” my criticism was correct regarding the government’s integration policy and the government’s ignorance of discrimination and racism. Sahlin also added that she had changed her understanding of the question of integration and believed that racism and discrimination hinders the integration of minorities.

Unfortunately, quickly after her declarations and open support of me and the investigation, Sahlin was replaced by a new Minister of Integration, Jens Orback, a politician with no experience and knowledge regarding integration and racism. I asked several people with insider knowledge about the reasons why Sahlin was replaced by Orback. The reason I heard was that the Prime Minister, Göran Persson, believed that the Social Democratic Party’s immigrant integration policy should not significantly differ from the right-wing Alliance parties, because the Social Democratic Party could lose the election. This was of course due to adaptation of “Third Way” politics developed in the United Kingdom (UK) in cooperation with social scientists such as Anthony Giddens and politicians such as the Prime Minister of the UK Tony Blair and the US president Bill Clinton. The Third Way sociologist, Anthony Giddens, provided a “scientific ground” for social democratic parties’ transformation to right in many western countries including Sweden. He claimed that “The Third Way can beat far right by modernizing, liberalizing and being tough on immigration.” Social Democrats lost the election of 2006 and a new right-wing government called the Alliance government seized state power. The new government appointed Nyamko Sabuni as the Minister of Integration. Given that she was one of Sweden’s most anti-immigrant and xenophobic political figures, Sabuni did not miss any opportunity to attack my investigation and put “the blame” of increasing racial segregation on immigrants. Sabuni claimed that she would solve the problem of integration during her term as minister. Mainstream dailies presented the new integration policy as the way of counteracting and correcting “the Social Democratic Kamali investigation, and Mona Sahlin’s understanding of integration.

Many right wing and conservative dailies supported Sabuni and claimed that the new government is going to solve the problem of integration in near future.

Symbolic violence, torture and whites’ interpretive prerogative

Denial of racism has deep roots in Sweden. A common tactic in denying the existence of racism in the country is to say “it has nothing to do with racism,” but with “non-nuanced” researchers, such as Kamali, who do not understand the “Swedish mentality,” Sweden’s “tradition of equality,” “solidary history,” and “values.” With this tactic and discourse, it is uninformed Swedes who are given interpretive prerogative over antiracist researchers, politicians, journalists and activists. I was subjected to the same demonization as some other antiracist politicians and journalist of color, such as Juan Fonseca and Alexandra Pascalidou. Fonseca as one of the first politicians of color in Sweden to publicly attack racism and discrimination against people of color in Sweden was stamped as “terrorist” in late 1990s. The demonization of Fonseca has led to his exclusion from Swedish parliament and the Social Democratic Party. He declared that “Racists in the party will stop me.” He left the Social Democrats and joined the Christian Democratic Party. However, after four years, he was forced to leave the new party and declared that there was no room for antiracist politics in that party. Many journals attacked him for being “anti-Swede” and “terrorist”.

The famous antiracist journalist of color, Alexandra Pascalidou, has also been under attack for many decades. She has been openly attacked and even threatened to death. She lost her leading position at the Swedish TV-program Mosaik because she introduced “too much antiracism” in the program. The cases of Fonseca, Pascalidou and me are just three examples of many people do not accept “their place in society” provided by white nationalists and the white power structure in Sweden. Such racist actions against people of color who are fighting against racism are done mainly by soft means of violence (“symbolic violence”) in order to eliminate any “threat” to the reproduction of the white structures of domination. This is discussed more in my book War, Violence and Social Justice.

In an interview with the daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, I said that “the hatred and physical and symbolic violence against me in Sweden, are worse than the torture I was subjected to as a political prisoner in Iran.” This evoked further hate and attacks against me and the former Minister of Integration in the Social Democratic government, Jan O. Karlsson, wrote an article in Sweden’s major tabloid, Expressen, titled “Stupid Kamali,” and said that “Masoud Kamali reduces, trivializes the suffering of all the people who have languished in the world’s torture chambers.”

Karlsson, who as the Minister of Integration showed his racist attitudes when he was forced to report about how he improved the integration of immigrants by saying that “We can’t walk around [governmental agencies] asking what have we done for the negroes today.” He presents himself here as the champion of those immigrants who have been subjected to torture. He did not even follow the politically correct Swedish tradition of being racist and later apologizing for his racist utterance about “negroes,” and said that “it was just a warning.”

I could provide names of many people who share my experiences and who will provide many examples of the symbolic (and in some cases physical) violence that they are subjected to on a daily basis as a member of minority groups. Did Karlsson ever ask those who he called “negroes” how they felt about their situation? Did Karlsson ever ask a child with an immigrant background who attends Swedish kindergartens and schools about their feelings of being othered and subjected to racist insults? Did Karlsson ever ask people with immigrant backgrounds about the daily symbolic violence they are subjected to in their workplaces, on buses, in their contacts with authoritie, and even when they are looking at Swedish TV? Did Karlsson ever ask women with headscarves about the public insults they are subjected to? Did Karlsson ever listen to young individuals who are depressed, silenced, and exhausted because of the everyday and systemic racism they are subjected to?

As Joe Feagin (2006) analyzes in detail, systemic racism creates much everyday racial oppression, most of which is fundamentally materialistic. It also regularly involves an aggressively hierarchical ordering of racial groups legitimated and rationalized by a dominant “white racial frame” affecting individuals, groups and societal institutions over a very long period during so-called “modern times” in Europe and North America.

Karlsson’s attack on me should be seen in light of the existence of a dominant “white racial frame,” which according to Feagin and O’Brien (2003) positions powerful white agents, especially elite white men, explicitly at the forefront of the discussion (and perpetuation) of racial oppression. Karlsson and certain other white men and women in Sweden’s public sphere knew that their attacks on me and others would fall in the fertile soil of white racial framing that functions as a shield, an often invisible white support system irrespective of the facts.

Karlsson and many other politicians and journalists who criticized me had no interest in asking me how I felt about my children and my family being subjected to death threats; or in asking me about my daily reflections regarding whether it was not better to stay and suffer execution in Iran because of my protest deeds there, which I was proud of–and not suffer because of my skin color and background, which influenced even my self-image as a human who wants to be treated equally. They had no interest in asking me about my daily anxieties about if it was not better for the future and the well-being of my children if I had stayed in Iran regardless of the outcome, instead of subjecting my children to life-long Swedish racism, which can destroy their sense of human dignity because of their skin color and immigrant background.

Swedish Racism: Engineering a False Image of Democratic Solidarity

When I, Masoud Kamali, arrived to Sweden as a political refugee from Iran in 1987, I had heard a lot about Sweden. While serving time as a political prisoner in Iran, one of my first images of Sweden came from an article that I had read in Iran’s major newspaper, Keyhan, when I was in jail in Iran in late 1970s. It was about Sweden’s charismatic Prime Minister Olof Palme. The article contained a picture of Palme walking his bicycle on the grounds of Stockholm’s famous Citadel and gathering money for the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua. As a leftist believing in a socialist revolution at that time, my prison-mates and I were very impressed by a country in which the Prime Minister dared openly support a leftist/Marxist movement.

At the time that Olof Palme was assassinated in 1986, I had been arrested and jailed in Turkey for trying to leave the country illegally, since I did not have a valid passport and visa. I remember that I could not control my tears since he had become a symbol of democracy and solidarity for me. Though Palme was remarkable for many reasons, his anti-Vietnam war campaign and strong opposition to Apartheid in South Africa were among his impressive political stances.

A few years later in 1989, I began studying Sociology at the University of Linköping in Sweden. Initially and for the first time, I felt that I had another identity instead of just being a “refugee.” Given my student status, I envisioned that my peers with Swedish backgrounds and I would be treated as equals. However, I would quickly learn that (GWF) Hegel was wrong; the abstract could not be understandable if it turns into concrete human action. On the contrary, in many cases quite the opposite is true. Abstract declarations of “Human Rights” and “equality of human beings” propagated by the Swedish government become meaningless when actualized as concrete action. I was not welcome to my Swedish classmate’s “after work” gatherings and to other “student activities.” I realized very soon that even questions such as “Do you like Sweden?” or “Are you happy to be in Sweden?,” were not neutral inquiries and should not be answered in accordance with your actual feelings and genuine sentiments. Such questions are master narrative scripts to be answered subserviently with responses like “Absolutely” (as in “Yes, sir boss!”) in order to “fit in” not as part of a Swedish group but rather in the token role of an “immigrant” who is a symbol of Swedish generosity and solidarity.

In other words, in a (Emile) Durkheimian manner, “if you will be integrated, you should accept your place in society.” Comments such as “You are coming from another culture” and “our cultures are so different” should be accepted without any objection, clarification, or nuance. In lectures on theories of “modernity,” when my professor pointed to me as an example of “those coming from non-modern or traditional societies,” I was not supposed to say anything about centuries of modernization and modern revolutions in Iran. By the way, this is a topic that I eventually explored in my book Revolutionary Iran published by Routledge. I felt that I had to be quiet and even show approval for being “considered a fact” that proved “Western modernization theory.” Against this arrogant and fake ‘fact’ constructed in European (post)colonial academic circles, I published another book on the subject, titled Multiple Modernities, Civil Society, and Islam (Liverpool University Press 2006). I hoped to contribute to opening the narrow imperialist and colonial eyes of West-centric academics.

“To Think Freely is Great, but to Think Rightly is Greater”

I realized very soon that there is a “double morality” or “double standard” in Sweden: a private domain and a public domain. However, for any individual to “fit in” society the public domain is much more important. This means that what you think is not important and should not be expressed publicly, or you will be held accountable or even harmed by failing to “think rightly.” This quote—“To think freely is great, but to think rightly is greater,”—by eighteenth century jurist Thomas Thorild is prominently engraved in gold at the entrance of the Grand Auditorium of Uppsala University’s Main Administration Building. Though intended in theory as a quote that promotes social justice, in practice it discourages people from thinking and speaking candidly and honestly because if you do not “think rightly” you will be labelled and sanctioned as being “deviant.”

I have experienced the negative sanctions of “thinking freely” and, worse than that, of communicating my free and honest thoughts publicly in Swedish journalistic and other media outlets. Thinking freely is not a problem as long as you keep your thoughts to yourself or only express them in a very private circle; but “thinking freely” and publicly is strictly taboo. I realized very soon that I had to adjust my thoughts to the tyranny of thinking rightly, which in some cases forced me to “lie.” I tried to convince myself that such “lies” were necessary in order to make parts of my free-thinking public. One of my earliest experiences of “thinking rightly” in Sweden went back to early 1990s. While completing my Master’s degree in Sociology at Uppsala University in 1993, I lived in a dormitory and shared a kitchen with 12 other students. During a dinner in the kitchen as the Swedish Parliamentary Elections were approaching, I asked one of my Swedish friends for which party he was going to vote. He tried to reformulate my inquiry, change the subject and avoid answering my question. When I asked my other dorm mates, they did the same. I felt ignorant and tried to understand why in a democratic society like Sweden, people do not openly discuss their democratic political positions and beliefs. I received several different, but unconvincing, answers. Several years later as I began academic research and writing about white racism and integration in Sweden, many Swedish colleagues and acquaintances would often say to me, “You say what you think” or “You are not afraid of saying what you think.” This repetitive observation was a bit confusing at the beginning. Why were Swedes stating the obvious? I thought that in a democracy you should not be afraid of saying what you think.

When I finished my doctoral education and received my PhD in Sociology from Uppsala University (the “Harvard” of Sweden), I started participating in the public debate on white racism in Swedish media. Experience had taught me that instead of speaking about “racism” in Sweden, you should speak about “integration.” Therefore, I tried to find a compromise by focusing upon “ethnic discrimination” when both conducting research and talking about the experiences of People of Color in Sweden. In other words, I tried to adjust myself to Swedish public norms, by following the custom of “do not say what you think” but adjust yourself to what you are expected to say. Since I was a frequent analyst in Swedish media and often making comments about migration and integration, politicians started contacting me and inviting me in their “inner circles.” As I became a social analyst of importance with expertise on issues of diversity and inclusion, politicians and political parties sought me for their own political agendas. My early political contacts with three Swedish Integration Ministers and other important politicians convinced me that in Sweden racism was “a non-issue” that one should never mention or discuss.

Early Scientific Racism: Swedish Origins

Reading the history of white racism in Sweden made me more concerned about the contemporary denial of racism. Sweden is a country in which one of the earliest institutes of “scientific racism,” namely “The State Institute for Racial Biology” was established in 1922 in Uppsala. The establishment of the institute was a legacy result of the Swedish botanist Carl von Linnaeus’ “Theory of Races” that was elaborated in his book, Systema Naturae, published in 1735. Linnaeus divided human beings into a race-hierarchy based on the color of their skin and their hair. Whites were, of course, the best race and were attributed with the best moral properties in contrast to “blacks,” “yellows,” and “reds,” who were placed under whites’ supremacy. The Institute survived even World War II and changed its name to the “Medical Biological Research Center” in 1958.

This Swedish racist history has also influenced the question of migration. The famous Swedish social democratic inquiry into the “Crisis in the Population Question” was co-authored by Gunnar Myrdal, along with his wife Alva Myrdal, because of concerns about the shortage of the working population in Sweden during the early 1930s. This book suggested that lack the same “qualities” as Swedes. This is the same Gunnar Myrdal who was a famous sociologist that was very critical of racial segregation in the United States and who criticized the disconnect between US ideals about equality and the inhumane treatment of Black Americans in his famous book, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. In contrast to what he suggested for the U.S., Myrdal claimed that Sweden should introduce policies for Swedes to give birth to more (white) “Swedish children” instead of allowing immigration. Notwithstanding such racist attitudes, the policy was not successful and after World War II the country was forced to actively invite migrant workers to Sweden. However, the migrants were considered “guest workers” who were supposed to return home when Sweden did not need them anymore.

Several years later and after a public debate on the question of “the failed Swedish integration policies,” I was appointed by the Swedish government as the head of a governmental inquiry called The Governmental Inquiry into Power, integration and Structural Discrimination in early 2004. Though an honorable, important, and well-intended appointment, as the saying goes, “Good intentions pave the road to Hell!” One Swedish professor who I assumed was my friend warned me:

You have not a clue who you are going to fight against, there are hidden powers in this country; nothing is going to be the same for you as it was before the investigation; you will not even be able to get a job in this country, they are everywhere and very influential.

Since I saw my fight against Swedish racism as an inseparable part of my struggle for social justice, and as a former human and civil rights revolutionary who participated in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, I convinced myself that heading a governmental investigation regarding racialized power inequities was the right thing to do. I thought that people have lost their lives in struggles for humanity and many are losing their hopes and dignity because of the existence of racism in the world in general and in Sweden in particular. Though only one individual on a global battle field, I was determined to do whatever I could to change the racist institutions and structures in Sweden. I have to admit though that I underestimated the huge resistance to the investigation and the role of powerful institutions, entities, and persons in opposing me and my investigation.

Once I accepted the position of Chief Investigator for a research-based governmental inquiry into racism and discrimination in Sweden, my future life and professional career were forced down that road paved to Hell. I was misrepresented as a trouble maker who “calls gentle Swedes” racists and characterizes the solidarity based Swedish society as a racially biased society. A few days after my appointment as the Chief Investigator, more than 70 Swedish professors and academics led by a leading professor at Gothenburg University wrote a petition to the government and attacked the Minister of Integration for “devaluating the Swedish investigation system” with the appointment of me (Masoud Kamali) as a major governmental investigator. They wrote that “the Swedish governmental investigation system has, prior to Kamali’s appointment, had an excellent scientific quality, which now is at risk of destruction.” In order to defend my scientific and human dignity against such racist attacks, I participated in a debate with the leading professor on Swedish Radio where I said the following:

I received my entire academic training in Sweden and in Swedish universities and if there is any problem with my academic training and my academic merits, the same critics should logically be directed towards the leading professor and other Swedish professors who signed the petition.

The professors did not even take a moment to check where I received my academic education and training. Assuming that my higher education was entirely from Iran and not from Sweden, they accused me of not being as “good an academician” as they (Swedish whites) were.

In an interview when I mentioned the role of “The State Institute of Racial Biology” and the racist theories of Linneaus for perpetuating racist ideology in Sweden as well as their consequences for institutional discrimination against people with immigrant and/or minority backgrounds, I received a huge number of threatening letters and phone calls telling me to leave the country if I did not like it. I was familiar with such racist attacks whenever I was in the Swedish news media spotlight, but the extent of the attacks after the investigation far exceeded the attacks before I led the investigation.

The attacks, however, did not come only from openly racist groups, but also from academicians, politicians and even the Social Democratic Party, which had appointed me as the investigator. I was supposed to “be kind” to the governing party, the Social Democrats. It was a period of huge pressure on me from different political parties and groups who sought to influence the investigation. Empirical findings from the first report of the investigation that was titled “Beyond Us and Them” emphasized the need to change the focus of the problems of integration from “the others” to problematical Swedish institutional arrangements and structures. This was what Gunnar Myrdal had suggested for the United States, but not for Sweden. The new Integration Minister, Jens Orback, publicly declared that “I am not sharing Masoud Kamali’s analysis of the problem of integration.” This was followed by many journalists’ and other politicians’ attack on me for “being anti-Swede” and “an immigrant who did not understand the Swedish solidary history.” Though the findings from the governmental investigation were scientific publications written by 130 Swedish experts and international experts in the area, many Swedes, who for many decades presented themselves and their country as champions of democracy and solidarity, did not like my candid reports.

As my leadership of The Governmental Inquiry into Power, Integration, and Structural Discrimination came to an end in 2006, a long campaign of destructive individual and institutional racism against me began. Instead of accepting scientific findings that empirically challenged the essentialist claim of white Swedes and Sweden as the champions of solidarity in the world, powerful people, entities, and institutions scapegoated me as a prime enemy against their imagined Swedish utopia.

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.

(Part one of a three-part essay).

Dr. Masoud Kamali
Uppsala January 2019