Speaking in Florida on Saturday 18 February, Donald Trump pledged to keep the United States safe from refugees, and pointed to catastrophes unfolding elsewhere as the reason:
We’ve got to keep out country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?
Who believes it, however, is of significance only if we work through what it is they are being asked to believe. Trump inserted Sweden into a narrative chain that included the Daesh-related attacks in Paris and Brussels in 2015-16, thus intimating that a ‘terrorist attack’ had taken place. No such attack had taken place, of course, and news editors everywhere scrambled to be the first to report on how Twitter had responded. Amidst the anxious-but-knowing mockery that now constitutes the main liberal response to Trump’s presidency, the fact that there was a recent refugee-related attack in Sweden – when Neo-Nazis from the Nordic Resistance Movement attacked a refugee centre in Gothenburg in January – received some welcome international coverage, while simultaneously underlining how the regularity of violent racist attacks has served to lessen their newsworthiness.
By Sunday, Trump tweeted a clarification that he was referring to a Fox News programme ‘concerning immigrants and Sweden’ and a rise in general rates of crime. This would appear to refer to an interview on Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight with Ami Horowitz, a ‘documentary film-maker’ who has been investigating ‘how Sweden became the rape capital of Europe’, and written for Breitbart [follow link at your own discretion] about ‘Muslim no-go areas’ in Sweden being like ‘going into the kill zone in Afghanistan’. These connections were easily revealed, and they invite us to consider Trump’s passing reference not as an empirical claim but instead as a resilient political myth.
Trump’s ‘Sweden’ is indexed to a racialized imaginative geography that has been given shape over decades, and my purpose in this somewhat extended blog is to open out some of the ways this has happened. Sweden is prime amongst the sites marked out as failed multicultural experiments, destroyed by the over-generosity of their immigration systems. This fevered geography is pronounced in the transnational ‘counter-jihad’ networks and radical right media that figures like Horowitz emerge from, but not only – it has also been formed through thoroughly mainstream modes of posing the ‘problem of immigration’. To point to Sweden, or Paris, or Bradford is to invoke a particular kind of post-racial legitimation, a way of talking about ‘problem populations’ that cannot be racist because the evidence of social disintegration and cultural loss is just over there.
To begin, then, elsewhere. On the BBC Northern Ireland show Nolan Live in September 2015, the UKIP councillor for Newry-Down, Henry Riley, was debating the cultural and social risks of Northern Ireland ‘accepting’ a few hundred refugees from Syria. Riley, who was expelled by UKIP in November 2015 for ‘an internal matter’, described a recent conversation with friends in the UK who were ‘afraid to walk their dogs’ in informally sharia’d zones of London, because ‘dogs are unclean in Islam’. When challenged by the host, Stephen Nolan, and fellow guest Eamonn McCann, to name some of these areas, Riley’s riff went into hyper-drive:
Look at Malmö in Switzerland, that has brought in huge numbers of Islamic refugees, it has gone from being the safest city in Europe to being the most crime-ridden, it has become the rape capital of the world because Islamic culture does not recognise women in the same protectionist way that we do.
The audience gasped but Riley clung to his factual totem – in Malmö, which is in Switzerland, unfettered immigration has resulted in Islamic culture… Here, of course, Riley stumbles, as the appropriation of feminism always proves to be the trickiest trope to master. Yet he is as unperturbed by audience laughter as Trump is by liberal condescension, and the fact that Malmö is not in Switzerland is as significant as the fact that nothing happened in Sweden. These locations are not actual referents: they have another function in a durable story. They are key sites on a compressed event chain of Islamic takeover and ‘liberal’ complicity that proposes an alternative history of ‘uncomfortable truths’ – a history that is always confirmed through its denial.
The genealogy of Riley’s talking points has been established over decades. While he focuses on the recently rarefied figure of ‘Islamic refugees’, his argument is rooted in the familiar moves of the so-called ‘new racism’: everybody has a natural home, and conflict inevitably results from the proximity of radically incommensurate cultures. Immigration is a zero-sum game: they benefit, while we are reduced to nothing more than strangers in our own land.
But key dimensions of contemporary ‘counter-jihad’ discourse are stitched into this resilient structure. Contrary to the trendy lament about filter bubbles causing political polarization, the online networks pursuing variously supremacist and integralist desires for a reclaimed nation/Europe/‘West’ are assiduous consumers of mainstream news. In particular, they survey news items about ‘migration’ and parlay any story about Muslims/refugees/immigrants into further evidence of social disintegration and cultural retreat. In this discourse, it is always ‘two minutes to midnight’ – if it’s happening even in Sweden, it can happen here, but we can stop it before it’s too late. This fantasy structure always needs a proximate future dystopia to point to, and to project onto.
Just as Trump gestured vaguely to the north-west, Riley clearly mixes up his talking points, but their significance nevertheless lies in the improbable transposition. Switzerland, since the ‘minaret referendum’ of 2009, has occupied a heroic status in the radical right and ‘counter-jihad’ blogosphere, marking not just a decisive stand against the roll-out of Eurabia, but also an indication of how the ‘silent majority’ could use direct democracy to roll back the multicultural experiment, if only the elites would let them.
Malmö is transplanted to these territories of Alpine resistance because it stands in as the exemplary ghetto. Just as Leicester has long stood as the projected fear of a ‘non-white majority’ future in the UK, Malmö is the subject of countless YouTube documentaries as the soon-to-be first Muslim-majority city in Europe, primarily because of an obsession with the suburb of Rosengård. Beyond this demographic fixation, the city has come to stand in as spatial evidence of the spectacular failure of Swedish multiculturalism, manifested in its status as the ‘rape capital of the world’ – in a country that is often interchangeably accorded the same accolade.
That Malmö was the city where Peter Mangs targeted and shot people of migrant backgrounds through 2009–10 doesn’t, of course, feature in this mythology. As the Canadian journalist Doug Saunders has pointed out in one of his many articles debunking these claims:
The Sweden story has become absolutely viral. You’ve probably read a version in a Facebook post, or heard it in a speech or debate. It is the argument-ender of the intolerant: To make the case against refugees, or immigration, or “Islam”, you recount a couple of stories about refugee-camp horrors, some random anecdotes of sex crimes involving brown people in various countries, and then drop the Sweden story.
Similarly, an investigative piece by Electronic Intifada on claims that Oslo has experienced a ‘Muslim rape epidemic’ traces the circulation of these claims to deliberate mistranslations of police reports circulated between the extensive far-right Nordic blogosphere – fleetingly in the headlines after Anders Breivik’s murder of young Social Democrats in 2011 – and the powerful ‘alternative’ media infrastructure of what Nathan Lean terms the ‘Islamophobia Industry’. With Breitbart’s white-supremacist ideologue Steve Bannon in the White House, and Trump and others in his inner circle having repeatedly retweeted white nationalist and far-right sources, it is not unreasonable to speculate that – much like Riley’s geography mash-up – Fox News’ Sweden factoid stuck in the new President’s head because it is such a familiar part of the repertoire.
And yet, to rest upon any delineation of good and bad media is too neat, because Trump’s Sweden has taken shape throughout and across the spectrum. On 7 January 2016, for example, The Independent ran a story about a European Agency for Fundamental Rights report on the prevalence of sexual assault in EU countries. The article mentions the variations in legal definitions of sexual assault across jurisdictions, and the significant differences in social and institutional support for women to report their experiences, before turning primarily to a claim by The Gatestone Institute that ‘Sweden is the rape capital of the West’ because:
According to the Institute, the fact that “in 1975 the Swedish parliament unanimously decided to change the former homogenous Sweden into a multicultural country” was of relevance when discussing why the number of rapes had increased.
The language of a ‘homogeneity’ that has been betrayed sets off no alarm bells for the journalist, and – as the EU data is not broken down into categories of offenders – the article fully depends on the Gatestone link for the entire second half of its analysis. The Gatestone link does not have data on the ethnic background of sexual offenders, but it cooks up a pseudo-correlation between immigration data, a timeline of ‘multicultural legislation’ and increased reporting of sexual assaults over time to reach the ‘rape capital of the West’ conclusion.
Here we are meant to be in the realm of news, not fake news, but nowhere is the status of the Gatestone Institute as, to quote Hilary Aked, ‘one of the most important hubs of America’s Islamophobia Industry’ noted or questioned. Neither does the identity of the authors of the ‘report’ raise any suspicions. It was written by Ingrid Carlqvist and Lars Hedegaard, co-editors of Dispatch International, a paper launched in 2012 at a major European ‘counter-jihad’ conference and whose first front page featured a lead story on how the ‘Muslim population in Sweden and Denmark doubled in 14 years’.
This is an obsessive theme for both of them; Carlqvist spoke in Helsinki last year about the ‘deliberate deconstruction of Sweden through Muslim immigration’. Hedegaard, whose views a New York Times profile described as a ‘stew of anti-Muslim bile and conspiracy-laden forecasts of a coming civil war’, was prosecuted for hate speech in Denmark for claiming that Muslims ‘rape their own children. It is heard of all the time. Girls in Muslim families are raped by their uncles, their cousins, their fathers’.
Trump’s scattergun referencing of far-right factoids should not obscure just how mainstream these claims have become, in a networked media system where ‘extreme’ sources are routinely laundered through this kind of linking, citation and sharing. But they are granted plausibility, as Finney and Simpson argue in their 2009 study of immigration myths in the UK, Sleepwalking to Segregation?, because while such demographic anxieties and spatial fixations don’t hold up to analysis, they generate powerful, widespread tropes of white anxiety and cultural loss.
For this reason, while international journalists race to find suitably quizzical and urbane Swedish responses to Trump’s imagined Swedistan, it is important to note how this imaginative focus is, inter alia, also a product of Swedish politics. The subtitle of Allan Pred’s brilliant study Even in Sweden (2000) is ‘racisms, racialized spaces and the popular geographical imagination’, precisely because of the political significance of “the telling and re-telling of symbol-laden stories about particular concrete-laden spaces”. Husby, Rinkeby, Rosengård: these spaces have been framed over decades as the fearful ghettoes of the neoliberal imagination, formed not through inequalities but through the self-segregation favoured by unruly multicultural subjects.
These myths are resilient and malleable: when young people in the Stockholm suburb of Husby rioted in 2013 in response to police violence, the then-Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt called for ‘respect for Swedish law and Swedish police’. They are also transnational: Reinfeldt’s insinuation will be familiar to those who have witnessed how the Parisian quartiers populaires are racialized as ‘lost territories of the republic’; or Bradford traduced as a failed city of ‘parallel communities’; or East Helsinki racialized as a ‘future Malmö’; or parts of Amsterdam and Rotterdam de-territorialised as ‘dish cities’ or ‘sharia zones’. These sites are always invoked as evidence of the ‘problems of immigration’, yet the only fact that really matters is that the concentration of economically excluded black and brown people routinely allows for these urban spaces to be projected onto as ‘internal borderlands’ of the nation.
In reading Trump, then, it is important to recall that both excitable and sober projections of the dissolution of ‘white nations’ have for decades been built on this kind of imaginary. Contrast the justified ridicule of Trump in Europe to the overwhelmingly positive response accorded to the widely syndicated journalist Christopher Caldwell, whose 2009 book Reflections of the Revolution in Europe is stuffed with references to ‘ethnic colonies’ where immigrants have established ‘population beachheads’ and whose threatening concentration of ‘immigrants’ excludes “native Europeans […] as effectively as an electric fence”. Caldwell stretched Trump’s tweets to a book-length treatment of the same racialized geography of fear, and it was treated as worthy of serious engagement.
Trump exaggerated a trope into a full-throated mythology that has flourished for years by being prefaced with a polite cough and presented as ‘fact’. To rope off such exaggerated manifestations as ‘false news’ in a ‘post-truth’ world is to miss why they have circulated so assiduously. In the recent era of European ‘integration’ politics, pretty much every centrist government has had their own ‘Sweden’: imaginaries of parallel societies, problemområden, ghettoes, parallelsgemeinschaften, ‘no-go’ areas and territoires perdus de la République that provide the ‘evidence’ of immigrant disintegration and multicultural failure.
Identifying these ‘problem spaces’ articulates a racism of good things and higher values: ‘Look what’s happening over there, look what they’re doing, look what they’re doing to us. Can we finally admit that it’s not us, it’s them, we tried, they failed, even in Sweden, that shining city on a multicultural hill. It’s time for tough love, for integration, assimilation, thought experiments, open debates, a muscular insistence on our values, for facing up to the uncomfortable truth.’
Gavan Titley works in Maynooth University.