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Sweden's Immigrant Influx Unleashes A Backlash

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Sweden's Immigrant Influx Unleashes A Backlash

Sweden's Immigrant Influx Unleashes A Backlash

Sweden's Immigrant Influx Unleashes A Backlash

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Two policemen stand outside a mosque in Uppsala, Sweden, last month. The mosque was firebombed on Jan. 1 in one of three arson attacks targeting the Muslim community in Sweden since Christmas Day. Anders Wiklund/AP hide caption

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Anders Wiklund/AP

Two policemen stand outside a mosque in Uppsala, Sweden, last month. The mosque was firebombed on Jan. 1 in one of three arson attacks targeting the Muslim community in Sweden since Christmas Day.

Anders Wiklund/AP

In the 1990s, the face of immigration to Sweden was someone like Robert Acker. His family emigrated from Bosnia when he was 6 years old.

"I got along with the Swedes early on," he says in American-accented English from his years playing basketball in Kentucky and New York. "But now, I believe it's a totally different thing."

Acker lives in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, an industrial center that has become the power base for the far-right Sweden Democrats.

"They want us out," says Acker. "They just want Swedes here."

Across Europe, far-right anti-immigrant parties are gaining political power. This is true from the Slavic countries to the British Isles, and from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean.

The change has been especially dramatic in Sweden, which for decades has been known for its openness and tolerance.

Two young girls carry leaflets reading "Don't touch my mosque" as they participate in a demonstration at the Parliament House in Stockholm last month. Fredrik Sandberg/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Fredrik Sandberg/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of refugees from Iraq and Syria have settled there recently. Many of them are Muslim — and the ethnic tension is palpable.

"We can't take care of all the people in the whole world who have needs in their lives," says security guard Filip Wennerlund.

Jimmie Akesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats Party (top left), attends the opening of the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm in September. Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

Wennerlund didn't mind Christian immigrants, but he believes it's not working with the Muslims, even though Sweden has had a Muslim population for decades.

"Often they don't want to come here and change," he says. "They want to change us. And we don't want to be changed. So that's a conflict."

Tensions Play Out In Politics

Boys read messages posted on the entrance of a mosque in Uppsala by neighbors pledging their support last month. Anders Wiklund/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Anders Wiklund/AFP/Getty Images

The anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats first gained a foothold in Parliament in the 2010 elections. Last September, they more than doubled their performance from four years earlier, winning 13 percent of the national vote. For a party with its roots in the neo-Nazi fringe, this was a remarkable transformation.

"They were much more extreme in the beginning, and now they're more mainstream," says Anna-Lena Lodenius, a freelance journalist and author who specializes in far-right political parties. "They want to transform the society," she says, to make it "more homogeneous."

To Sweden Democrats and their supporters, immigrants are distorting Swedish society beyond recognition.

"Immigrants are in general little bit more criminal than Swedes born in Sweden, and that's a fact," party leader Jimmie Akesson recently told the BBC. "You can see it especially in violence, rape and so on."

Of course others dispute that claim. Nonetheless, the Sweden Democrats want to cut immigration by 90 percent. And they are willing to take dramatic steps to make it happen.

In December, this insurgent political party brought Sweden's government to the brink of collapse.

Only two months after the new government took power, the minority Sweden Democrats blocked Prime Minister Stefan Lofven's budget proposal. He called emergency elections — a development that Anders Widfeldt of the University of Aberdeen calls nearly unprecedented.

Widfeldt, author of a book called Extreme Right Parties in Scandinavia, says the Sweden Democrats proudly declare themselves to be outsiders, dedicated to upsetting the apple cart.

"They are sort of against everybody else," he says. "And the bigger they grow, of course, the more of a veto power they will have."

Just before New Year's, the prime minister forged a new alliance, got a budget deal and avoided those snap elections. But these tensions are growing far beyond politics.

Racism Isn't A Matter Of Simple 'Good Vs. Evil'

Across Sweden, three mosques were firebombed in the span of a month.

"Every time I wake up, I'm very afraid to check my telephone to see that something happened during the night," says Omar Mustafa, president of the Islamic Association of Sweden.

At an interview in his Stockholm office, he says that although Sweden has a history of racism, "this year, and this time especially, it's the most scary time actually. People are really afraid, and people are actually talking about moving from Sweden."

The Sweden Democrats insist that there is no connection between these attacks and the party's anti-immigration rhetoric. At an interview in Malmo, party official Nima Gholam Ali Pour suggests that Muslims may have firebombed the mosques.

"Were there personal problems in the mosque, or was it someone from another mosque?" he asks. "There are conflicts between Muslims."

When pressed about swastikas that have been painted on the side of mosques, though, Ali says, "Of course that's racist. That's racist."

The story is more complicated than just white racist Christians attacking Muslim immigrants. Jews in Sweden say they are being attacked, too. A recent documentary on Swedish television showed a reporter walking down the street wearing a yarmulke, as a hidden camera filmed bystanders shouting insults and threats.

And in many cases, the people attacking Jews are Muslim immigrants.

"Almost exclusively, they have some sort of background in the Middle East," says Aron Verstandig, a leader in Stockholm's Jewish community.

Verstandig says many people try to paint these ethnic tensions as good vs. evil. They want clear victims and perpetrators, in separate boxes. But in fact, he says, the roles overlap and switch.

"You have these immigrants who are very poor, and they are the victims of a lot of violence, a lot of hatred from Sweden Democrats and other right-wing parties. And they are victims in one way," Verstandig says. "But some of them — a minority of them — are perpetrators in another way. You don't have people who are just good and bad. It's a very complex situation."

Omar Mustafa of the Islamic Association of Sweden agrees. He says it's part of humanity that there are always extremists.

"We have it in Islam, there is in Christianity, there is in the Swedish community. There is everywhere," Mustafa says. "So it's a good opportunity for us, the rest of society, to really take back the agenda. And we have to say to them, 'We don't buy it.' "

Mustafa says when fringe groups try to speak on behalf of everyone, the moderate majority needs to speak up — and say, "We have a different story to tell."

Refugees Find A Closing Of Sweden's Open-Door Immigration Policy

Refugees Find A Closing Of Sweden's Open-Door Immigration Policy

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Ethnic and political tensions are growing in Sweden, a country traditionally known for its openness and tolerance. In some cases, the victims of discrimination are also perpetrators.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Across Europe, ethnic tensions have been on the rise. And this morning, we're zooming in on one country, Sweden. For decades, it had a virtual open-door policy for asylum-seekers and refugees. But now, an anti-immigration party is gaining influence. Mosques have been firebombed, and anti-Semitism seems to be growing. NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke with people at the center of these tensions in the southern city of Malmo.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Robert Acker looks like a Swede and talks like an American.

ROBERT ACKER: I currently work with kids and play basketball professionally here in Sweden.

SHAPIRO: He played in the states, too. But he was not born in either of those countries.

ACKER: Yeah, my family immigrated in '96 from Bosnia, from the war.

SHAPIRO: He was 6 years old. In the '90s, that was the face of immigration to Sweden, refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Today, people are escaping to Sweden by the thousands from Iraq and Syria. Ackers says it's not like when he was a kid.

ACKER: I got along with the Swedes early on. But now, I believe, it's a totally different thing.

SHAPIRO: He thinks recent Muslim immigrants are not integrating as well as earlier generations of arrivals. And now a political party that wants to cut immigration to Sweden by 90 percent is booming. We're standing in a neighborhood that is a center of support for that party. Acker says the Sweden Democrats seem to want to get rid of all immigrants, integrated or not.

ACKER: I mean, they want us out. They just want Swedes here. But they just don't say it.

SHAPIRO: Like many far-right parties in Europe, the Sweden Democrats have moved from the political fringe to the mainstream faster than anybody expected.

FILIP WENNERLUND: We can't take care of all the people in the whole world who have the needs in their life.

SHAPIRO: Filip Wennerlund is a security guard who lives in the area. He was fine with Christian immigrants. But he believes it's just not working with the Muslims, even though Sweden has had a Muslim population for decades.

WENNERLUND: Often, they don't want to come here and change. They want here to change us. And we don't want to be changed, so that is a conflict.

SHAPIRO: And the conflict has turned violent.

OMAR MUSTAFA: Every time I wake up, I'm very afraid to check my telephone to see that something happened during the night.

SHAPIRO: Omar Mustafa is president of the Islamic Association of Sweden. At his office in Stockholm, he told me that Sweden has a history of racism.

MUSTAFA: But this year and this time especially, it's the most scary time actually. People are really afraid. And people are actually talking about moving from Sweden.

SHAPIRO: Three mosques were firebombed in a month. The Sweden Democrats insist that there is no connection between these attacks and the party's anti-immigration rhetoric. Party spokesman Nima Gholam Ali Pour told me, maybe Muslims bombed the mosques.

NIMA GHOLAM ALI POUR: Were there personal problems in the mosque? Or was it someone from another mosque? There is conflicts in between mosque members, so...

SHAPIRO: But some mosques have had swastikas painted on the side of them. That doesn't - I mean...

POUR: Of course, that's racist...

SHAPIRO: OK (laughter).

POUR: All right, that's racist.

SHAPIRO: But the story is more complicated than just white, racist Christians attacking Muslim immigrants. Jews in Sweden say they are being attacked, too. And here's where it gets really tricky. In many cases, the people attacking Jews are Muslim immigrants.

ARON VERSTANDIG: Almost exclusively, they all - they have some sort of a background in the Middle East.

SHAPIRO: Aron Verstandig is a leader in Stockholm's Jewish community. He says many people try to paint these ethnic tensions as good versus evil. They want clear victims and perpetrators in separate boxes. But in fact, he says, the roles overlap and switch.

VERSTANDIG: You have these immigrants who are very poor, and they are the victims of a lot of violence, a lot of hatred from Sweden Democrats and other right-wing parties. And they are victims in one way, but they are also - some of them or a minority of them - are perpetrators in another way. It's - you don't have people who are just good and just bad. It's a very complex situation.

SHAPIRO: Omar Mustafa of the Islamic Association of Sweden agrees. He says it's part of humanity that there are always extremists.

MUSTAFA: We have it in Islam. There is in Christianity. There is in the Swedish community. There is everywhere. So it's a good opportunity for us - the rest of society - to really take back the agenda. And we have to say to them, we don't buy it.

SHAPIRO: He says when fringe groups try to speak on behalf of everyone, the moderate majority needs to speak up and say, we have a different story to tell. Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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