On the evening of March 3, 2021, while I was thinking of taking a break after a long day of meetings, my Twitter feed started to get flooded with news of a stabbing rampage resulting in injuries to seven people in a small Swedish town called, Vetlanda.
Many right-wing social media sites and Twitter handles quickly projected it as ‘Islamist terror’ and how Sweden has become lawless due to its liberal policy in accepting refugees.
Though the investigation has not found any terror motive yet, it was enough for the right-wing to indulge in another round of Sweden-bashing just because the attacker was an Afghanistan-origin man. It has also prompted Sweden’s far-right party to demand to stop all immigration.
If anyone follows the discourse propagated by the right-wing ecosystem, it is not very difficult to see Sweden as a failed state or a ‘Nordic banana republic’. Sweden bashing by the Republicans in the US is not recent as they started to see the Nordic country decades ago as a successful example of a welfare state.
President Eisenhower, in 1960, had described Sweden as a cautionary tale for the believers in socialism and a country without ‘ambition’ and with high rates of alcoholism, suicide, and divorce.
In recent years, President Trump has repeatedly spoken ill about Sweden, particularly criticising its liberal refugee policy. In his infamous ‘last night in Sweden’ speech of 2017, he referred to a non-existent terror attack in Sweden to push for his tighter immigration policies at home.
Trump, in his four years of Presidency, frequently attacked Sweden in his speeches and tweets. Strangely, Trump never criticised neighbouring Norway; he has even gone to the extent of suggesting that the US should get more people from Norway while making disparaging comments about other migrant-sending countries.
Even before the rise of Trumpism, Swedish bashing by the right-wing media became a fashion in 2015, when Sweden adopted an open-door policy for refugees from Syria in 2015.
Increasing social tensions
Since then, the alternative media platforms controlled by right-wing influencers have been at the forefront in painting Sweden as almost a failed state, whose welfare system has crumbled, and the country has fallen apart due to increasing crime and racial tensions.
Some right-wing newspapers are also part of that ‘Sweden bashing’. These media platforms provide legitimacy to the massive alternative online media, and they come together like a pack of wolves to target the country.
This right-wing alternative media focuses more vocally and provocatively on immigration’s negative aspects, mainly targeting Muslims.
The ‘Muslim-Hate’ unites far-right social media influencers from Europe and North America and right wing chauvinists from India. Because of this reason why a stabbing rampage or burning of a couple of cars in Sweden becomes a piece of big news in India’s right-wing ecosystem, and my Twitter feed gets filled with hate messages.
Sweden bashing is not only limited to right-wing alternative media outside Sweden. In the 2018 election, as the Oxford internet Institute research has found out, some of Sweden’s right-wing sites even deliberately published misleading information, most with a focus on immigration and Islam.
In recent years, Sweden has witnessed a high prevalence of right-wing alternative online media coinciding with the spectacular rise of a populist anti-immigrant, Sweden Democrats. Fuelled by the anti-immigration backlash, many Swedes are reading these racist and Islamophobic websites.
These online platforms are going to any extent to amplify, provoke, and cultivate nativist passions and political forces.
An open society
Sweden has taken more refugees per capita than any other country in Europe. Around 20% of Sweden’s population are foreign-born. In 2015, while Europe struggled to cope with a massive refugee crisis, Sweden accepted 163,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. No doubt, immigration has probably become the most important political issue in Sweden.
Sweden has a long history of accepting immigration from war and famine-affected countries, and the government has been facing severe challenges on the integration front for some time now. Failed integration policies have led to some ‘vulnerable neighbourhoods’.
Economic inequality is increasing, and there are signs of decaying institutions as well. However, contrary to what the right-wing ecosystem wants the world to believe, Sweden continues to be a highly prosperous, democratic, and tolerant country. And, for the bad weather, you can’t possibly blame the failed integration policy.
As per the last week’s Freedom House Report, Sweden scores full marks in political rights and civil liberties. In 2020, Sweden was ranked number 7 in the Human Development Index and the World Happiness Index. Sweden has neither failed nor become lawless. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Sweden’s global ranking was 3 in 2020.
Similarly, Sweden is one of the most socially advanced countries globally, as its ranking in 2020 in the Social Progress Index is 5. In the 2020 Fragile State Index, among 178 countries, Sweden was ranked 172, which means it was the world’s 7th least vulnerable country. With a per capita GDP of $56,632 in 2019, Sweden is economically sound and politically stable and continues to be rich with human, social, and institutional capital.
Sweden’s progressive liberal value system, generous welfare policies, openness to accepting refugees, championing feminism, and environmentalism annoy the right-wing the most.
Despite a massive and coordinated right-wing misinformation campaign against it, Sweden currently ranks number 1 in the Good Country Index, which examines and measures a country’s contribution to the common good of humanity. Sweden was never heaven and probably will never be heaven.
Despite its challenges, Sweden continues to be one of the best countries in the world to live in, for the natives and the immigrants. Even, at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe in 2017, according to a Pew Research Center Survey, Sweden scored lowest on the scale of nationalist, anti-immigrant, and antireligious minority attitudes in the continent.
The right-wing ecosystem and its ‘junk’ news have not yet changed Swedish society’s essential characters: modesty, equality, tolerance, and humanity. Hopefully, it never will.