The Magazine

A Swedish Dilemma

From the February 28, 2005 issue: Immigration and the welfare state.

Feb 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 22 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Malmö, Sweden

"EVERYONE is welcome here," says Bejzat Becirov to a non-Muslim visitor. Becirov runs the Islamic Center of Malmö, on the outskirts of Sweden's third-largest city. When Becirov immigrated from his native Macedonia in 1962, Swedes used to say that kind of thing, too. But in the last two decades, Malmö has acquired a population that is almost 40 percent foreign. Most of the students in its public schools are of foreign parentage. Some immigrant neighborhoods in the city have (official) unemployment rates exceeding 50 percent. Malmö's mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, has pleaded for immigrants to be settled in other parts of Sweden. This has made Reepalu popular in Malmö, but not in those other parts of Sweden. Others uneasy about immigration are too impatient to work through official channels. Much of the Islamic Center was destroyed by a fire of suspicious origin in 2003.

Becirov founded the center in 1964. The squat mosque, recently renovated, with two minarets, was built in 1984. That makes it among the oldest of the hundreds of mosques that now dot Scandinavia. This is a place that can raise great hopes or great worries, depending on how one views it. The center has a bustling school of a dozen classrooms. Becirov is an avuncular and open-hearted man, and the hundreds of students at the school dote on him. They run up and hug him, they tell him jokes. The teachers are dedicated, mostly native Swedes, who are teaching the children both Swedish and English. There is also a teacher of Arabic and the Koran. There is a clinic that treats sick kids, circumcises baby boys, and gives psychiatric counseling to war-traumatized children.

The center is on the edge of Rosengård, an archipelago of housing projects southeast of Malmö. It is one of the poorest, most transient, and welfare-dependent neighborhoods in Sweden. Swedish authorities have failed to lift up the area, and seem to be giving the Islamic Center of Malmö a great deal of leeway in attempting to do so. An article that appeared in 2003 noted that "a few" of the 6-to 10-year-old girls were wearing headscarves. On a visit in January 2005, fully 80 percent were covered in class--only a handful were not.

MALMÖ IS THE CITY IN SWEDEN most touched by immigration--but it's not unique. In a fit of absent-mindedness, Sweden has suddenly become as heavily populated by minorities as any country in Europe. Of 9 million Swedes, roughly 1,080,000 are foreign-born. There are between 800,000 and 900,000 children of immigrants, between 60,000 and 100,000 illegal immigrants, and 40,000 more asylum-seekers awaiting clearance. The percentage of foreign-born is roughly equivalent to the highest percentage of immigrants the United States ever had in its history (on the eve of World War I). But there are two big differences. First is that, given the age distribution of the native and foreign populations, the percentage of immigrants' offspring will skyrocket in the next generation, even if not a single new immigrant arrives, and even if immigrant fertility rates fall to native-born levels. But second, when America had the same percentage of foreign-born, many had arrived decades before, and were largely assimilated.

Modern Sweden has built its sense of identity on two pillars: its generous welfare state and its status as what Social Democrats used to proudly call a "moral superpower." (Non-Social Democrats still use the term, mockingly.) Indications are that the latter achievement is in the process of destroying the former.

Part of Sweden's sense of moral worthiness has been earned. It derives from a straightforward impulse to charity. One reads in European papers, for instance, that Henning Mankell, one of the world's most popular authors of detective novels, spends much of his time working to fight AIDS and illiteracy in Mozambique. But Sweden's moral engagement has been tinged at times with a provincial sense of national superiority. The Social Democrat Olof Palme hitched his political career to the anti-Vietnam war movement in Europe and spent the rest of his life scolding anti-Communists; in 1982, he invented the trope of accusing Israelis of treating Palestinians exactly as Nazis had treated Jews. Palme managed to lead the country for 12 of 17 years--until he was murdered on a Stockholm shopping street in 1986--without ever once getting invited to the White House. Sweden ranked high, in a notorious 2003 Eurobarometer poll, among those naming the United States and Israel as the major threats to world peace.