I don’t go to those places without security,” a Swedish journalist tells me when I ask whether she would accompany me to some of her country’s “especially vulnerable” areas. The label is given by police to neighborhoods where crime is rampant and parallel social structures compete for authority with the state. To the politically incorrect, these are also known as “immigrant ghettos.”
While much attention was focused on Germany during the 2015 refugee crisis, in which more than a million migrants from the Middle East and Africa entered the continent at the behest of Angela Merkel, the country that admitted the most migrants per capita was Sweden. In one year alone, the northern European nation of 10 million added nearly 2 percent to its population. Most of those arrivals were young men. Tens of thousands more have continued to arrive since then.
It is too early to see the long-term impact of the 2015 migrant crisis, but if the past is any indication of Sweden’s future, the answer may be found in its “vulnerable” neighborhoods. In recent years, the Nordic state known for scoring among the highest among all nations in quality-of-life indexes has also gained a reputation for gang shootings, grenade attacks, and sexual crimes.
Days before I was due to arrive in Sweden last summer, the country was rocked by mass car burnings across its west coast. Authorities faulted “youth gangs” for the fires, a euphemism for criminal young men of migrant backgrounds. My first visit was to Rosengård, Seved, and Nydala, immigrant neighborhoods in the southern city of Malmö and among the 23 “especially vulnerable” areas across Sweden. At times, ambulances and fire trucks will enter only with police protection. Desperate police have appealed to imams and clan leaders for help when they cannot contain the violence.
From Malmö’s central train station, I began walking alone to Rosengård, an area rocked by some of the country’s most violent riots in 2008 after a mosque was denied a new lease. Halfway through my journey, I stopped outside the Malmö Synagogue. I was greeted by a metal security fence and closed-circuit cameras. In 2010, the synagogue was attacked with explosives. And in December 2017, hundreds of protesters in the city chanted for an intifada and promised to “shoot the Jews” after President Trump announced the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. One of the consequences of mass migration to Europe that no one had predicted was the importation of a different strain of anti-Semitism.
I continued onward.
The closer the GPS told me I was to my destination, the more headscarves I saw and the less Swedish I heard. In Rosengård, youths gathered during school hours in streets and parks around the public housing that lined the neighborhood. In fact, fewer than half of ninth-graders here pass enough classes to enroll in high school.
Four hundred miles north, in the country’s capital, I witnessed similar social phenomena in some Stockholm neighborhoods. I was more discreet on that trip; journalists have been violently attacked in those areas.
In Rinkeby, young girls and even some babies were dressed in modesty headscarves. Cafés were in practice male-only spaces, and a restaurant in the town center offered segregated seating, with a curtain, for “families,” a euphemism for women.
Here, there were no H&Ms or other hallmarks of Swedish fashion. Instead, small clothing stores sold Islamic robes, hijabs, and face veils. And in contrast to the near-cashless society I encountered elsewhere in urban Sweden, many businesses here accepted only cash.
In Tensta, another “extremely vulnerable” district near Rinkeby, I stopped by the local administrative office. It is one of the few visible institutions of the Swedish state in the area. Security guards stood at the door. The week before, masked assailants left burning tires outside the office — one of a number of attacks on authorities in the neighborhood.
Left-wing parties also plastered campaign posters all over featuring politicians of conspicuous Muslim background. The Left party played Arabic-language music and distributed food in Alby, a “vulnerable” district in southern Stockholm.
The on-the-ground reality I witnessed in some parts of Sweden stood in stark contrast to the egalitarian utopia I had been sold by American progressives. How did Sweden, on the whole a prosperous and peaceful nation, also develop parallel, segregated societies afflicted by criminality and violence? The starkest reminder of this reality are the numerous grenade explosions and gun murders that have become a regular occurrence across some sections of society. In fact, Sweden’s homicide rate is now above the Western European average.
“The hope was to bring people together under a strong welfare state,” Mikael Jalving, a Copenhagen-based historian who wrote an acclaimed book on Swedish multiculturalism, tells me. “But instead, immigrants from one type of [religious] background became concentrated in those buildings.”
The homes were built in the 1960s and ’70s as part of an ambitious program to provide more than a million new homes, primarily for the working class. Urban planners selected locations near wide-open parks, unintentionally creating an ideal environment for future gangs, criminals, and their watchmen.
University West sociologist Göran Adamson blames, in addition to poor urban planning, Sweden’s state-sponsored multiculturalism for financing separatism through various ethno-religious institutions. “The shrewd thing about multiculturalism is that it has somehow fused with the state,” the associate professor tells me.
Sweden’s institutionalization of multiculturalism began in 1975, when a parliament led by Social Democrat Olof Palme rejected assimilation in favor of policies that encouraged minorities to keep their separate identities. “Of course, if you say these things [critically] in Sweden, you’ll be ferociously attacked by social workers and the dominating left-wing academia for being inhumane,” Adamson says.
Most then choose to remain silent. But some of the loudest dissident voices are coming from immigrants themselves, who experience firsthand the failures and contradictions of Swedish multiculturalism.
“We have failed at integration for the past 30 years,” Mustafa Panshiri, a former police officer and now full-time integration educator, tells me. Panshiri, who came to Sweden with his family from Afghanistan when he was eleven, says Sweden excels at welcoming migrants but fails at explaining what citizenship is. “You don’t have to speak a single word of Swedish to become a citizen. There are no expectations.”
That sentiment was repeated by Omar Makram, a 33-year-old refugee from Egypt who entered Sweden at the beginning of the migrant crisis in 2014. He describes government authorities as wholly ignorant or willfully blind, in the name of tolerance, to problematic, regressive cultural attitudes held by some migrants.
Long before the migrant crisis, Sweden had codified its form of humanitarianism into the country’s domestic and foreign-policy framework. Billions of dollars have been spent on foreign aid and resettling tens of thousands of asylum seekers from disparate cultures. Within a generation, Sweden has experienced a dramatic demographic transformation. According to the latest government statistics, almost a third of the Swedish population has at least one parent who was born abroad.
That cultural and demographic transition is beginning to tear at the seams. By 2018, the country known for its politically correct consensus culture gave a right-wing anti-immigrant populist party its best performance to date in its national election in September, depriving the traditional center-left and center-right blocs a majority.
The Sweden Democrats, a former fringe party with (disavowed) roots in neo-Nazism, finished in third place, with nearly 18 percent of the vote. And now, over three months later, Sweden is still without a government. Establishment politicians have postponed a reelection, fearing that the Sweden Democrats may benefit. The party’s leader, Jimmie Åkesson, is controversial in part for his outspoken criticism of Islam and Muslims.
The visibility of conservative and fundamentalist Islamic norms I witnessed in “vulnerable” neighborhoods may not mean much by itself, but too often it is linked to violent extremism. A Syrian man who lived in Rosengård is currently in French custody for suspected involvement in both the 2015 Paris attacks and the 2016 Brussels bombings. And it is estimated that in 2012–15 some 300 Swedish nationals traveled to the Middle East to join militant Islamist groups. Of that, around 70 percent came from “vulnerable” neighborhoods, Magnus Ranstorp, the research director at the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish Defense University, tells me. Another 2,000 individuals remain on the radar of the Swedish Security Service for being potential jihadists.
In April 2017, an Uzbeki failed asylum seeker used a stolen truck to drive through a crowd of shoppers on a busy Stockholm street. Five people were killed, including an eleven-year-old girl. Fourteen others were injured. The man swore allegiance to the Islamic State the day before the attack. One of his known addresses was in Tensta.
Although Sweden’s jihadist problem intersects with immigration, evidence doesn’t support the myopic focus on Muslims in immigration discourses, according to Stockholm School of Economics researcher Tino Sanandaji. “Among migrants from the Middle East” to Sweden, most “are not Muslim but instead are Christian, atheist, agnostic, and members of other religious minorities,” he tells me. Sanandaji, a Kurdish immigrant from Iran who has written a best-selling book on Swedish immigration, says that people often confuse Middle Eastern culture with Islam. His research, he says, indicates that second-generation immigrant gangs are influenced more by gangster-rap subculture than by any religion.
For the remainder of my trip, ethnic Swedes I spoke with responded with incredulity when I told them about what I saw in some neighborhoods in their own cities. They didn’t believe that within a short metro ride they could find communities practicing sex segregation, religious fundamentalism, and the imposition of extreme modesty culture on young children. They conceded, however, that they hadn’t spent much time in those areas. Most of those I spoke with had never even visited them — and have no reason to. Parallel societies are exactly that: They exist side by side and rarely meet.