Lessons of the Swedish vote

The strong showing of Europe’s anti-migration parties in recent elections reflects the appeal of the narrative they use.
Sunday 16/09/2018
An election official counts parliamentary ballots at a counting centre in Stockholm, on September 13. (AFP)
An election official counts parliamentary ballots at a counting centre in Stockholm, on September 13. (AFP)

In Sweden’s recent elections, a nationalist and anti-migration political formation garnered nearly one-fifth of the vote. The party, Sweden Democrats, is well-positioned to influence the course of politics in a Scandinavian country long perceived as a model of tolerance and openness.

The results are significant in that they underline the effect of migration flows from the Middle East on a country such as Sweden. As Ivar Ekman, a Swedish radio host, argues in Foreign Affairs magazine, migration has changed the face of Sweden. He writes that the waves of migrants post-2015, especially from Syria, played an important role and the election results have merely “brought long-simmering conflicts over identity to the surface.”

Even more significant is what the vote may portend for the rest of Europe. Ekman says the Swedish vote could indicate that a “strong far right is Europe’s new normal.” He points out that “practically all Western countries now have some 20-odd% of the voting population who, for one reason or another, don’t like immigrants.”

Voting patterns do reveal clear trends in the wider European context. Judging from the projections by the Reuters news agency, based on opinion polls and election results, Sweden’s far-right party could double its representation in the European Parliament after next year’s continent-wide poll and the European Parliament’s so-called Eurosceptic bloc could have grown by an extra 60% after the May elections.

That would mean more control vested in legislators hostile to European integration and current migration policies. They would have about one-fifth of the seats, enough to influence legislative debates on issues concerning the Middle East and North Africa region.

The strong showing of Europe’s anti-migration parties in recent elections reflects the appeal of the narrative they use. These parties whip up fear of “Muslim invasion” and talk up the supposedly eroding sovereignty of individual European nations.

It has not helped the cause of Muslims in Europe that their case was too many times pressed by militants with little understanding of Islam or the Arab-Muslim communities’ real interests. Islamist militants advocated estrangement from European cultures and societies when Arabs and Muslims needed encouragement and guidance towards the path of integration and coexistence.

France, a country with a particularly strong secularist tradition, is a case in point. A French majority has always backed secularist stances against conspicuous displays of religiosity. Islamist militants have pushed for exactly the opposite.

Until a few years ago, the French, like nationals of many other European countries, were complacent about Islamist activism. Le Figaro reported that the Renseignements Generaux (domestic intelligence service) estimated “Salafist” militants at “a few hundred” in the 1990s. Today, there are 30,000-50,000 Salafist militants.

A report by the Montaigne Institute in Paris highlighted the spread of the confrontationist Salafists’ narrative online, having first established a foothold in the real world.

European-Muslim understanding requires wiser voices than those of hard-line Salafist militants or those of Europe’s anti-migration far right.

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