Sweden is maybe well known for its popular music, VOLVO cars, IKEA forniture and a generous welfare state. It is also increasingly associated with a rising number of Islamic State recruits, bombings and hand grenade attacks. In a period of two weeks earlier this year, five explosions took place in the country. It’s not unusual these days, Swedes have grown accustomed to headlines of violent crime witness intimidation and gangland executions. In a country long renowned for its safety, voters cite ‘law and order’ as the most important issue ahead of the general election in September.
The topic of crime is sensitive, however, and debate about the issue in the consensus oriented Scandinavian society is restricted by taboos. To understand the situation in Sweden, it’s important to note that Sweden has benefited from the West’s broad decline in deadly violence, particularly when it comes to spontaneous violence and alcohol related killings. The overall drop in homicides has been, however, far smaller in Sweden than in neighboring countries. Gang-related gun murders, now mainly a phenomenon among men with immigrant backgrounds in the country’s parallel societies, increased from 4 per year in the early 1990s to around 40 last year. Because of this Sweden has gone from being a low crime country, to having homicide rates significantly above the Western European average.
Social unrest with car torchings, attacks on first responders and even riots, is a recurring phenomenon. Shootings in this country have become so common, that they don’t make top headlines anymore, unless they are spectacular or lead to fatalities. News of attacks are quickly replaced with headlines about sports events and celebrities, as readers have become desensitized to the violence. A generation ago, bombings against the police and riots were extremely rare events. Today reading about such incidents is considered part of daily life. The rising levels of violence have not gone unnoticed by Sweden’s Scandinavian neighbors. Norwegians commonly use the phrase “Swedish conditions” to describe crime and social unrest.
The view from Denmark was made clear when former President of NATO and Danish Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen said in an interview on Swedish Media: “I often use Sweden as a deterring example.” In response, the Swedish government has launched an international campaign for “the image of Sweden” playing down the rise in crime, both in its media strategy and through tax funded PR campaigns. During a visit to the White House in March, Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven admitted that his country has problems with crime and specifically shootings, but denied the existence of no go zones. Sweden’s education minister Gustav Fridolin, traveled to Hungary last week, with the same message.
But the reality is different for those on the ground: The head of the paramedics union Ambulansförbundet Gordon Grattidge, and his predecessor Henrik Johansson, recently told me in an interview that some neighborhoods are definitely no go for ambulance drivers… at least without police protection. Carl Bildt’s attempt to relativize current anti Semitism with odd and inaccurate historical arguments reflects how nervously Swedish elites react to negative headlines about their country. Another spectacular example is an official government website on “Facts about migration, integration and crime in Sweden,” which alleges to debunk myths about the country.
One ‘false claim’ listed by the government is that “Not long ago, Sweden saw its first Islamic terrorist attack.” This is surprising, since the Uzbek jihadist Rakhmat Akilov has pleaded guilty to the truck ramming that killed five people in Stockholm last April and swore allegiance to the Islamic State prior to the attack. Akilov, who is currently standing trial, has proudly repeated his support for ISIS and stated that his motive was to kill Swedish citizens. He also had documented contacts with international jihadis. Officials may be resigned to the situation, but in a Western Europe in peacetime, it is reasonable to view these levels of violence, as a situation out of control.