Nationalism, Identity, and Public Policy in Sweden: Pursuing an Elusive National Identity

By Gustaf Forsell
2017, Vol. 9 No. 06 | pg. 1/1

Similarly to many European countries, the Swedish population often perceive their history as an epoch of homogeneity: a time when every Swedish citizen was believed to have had the same ethnic phenotype, spoken the same language, believed in the same God, and shared the same basic values (Gardell, 2011, p. 23). It is embedded in the Swedish national identity, as if it is possible to explain lex naturalis. The notion is expressed on the well-recognised Swedish website Nationalencyklopedin (National Encyclopaedia of Sweden) which argues that Sweden has been ‘an immigration country’ (‘Sverige’, n.d.) since the interwar period, that is to say, the period between 1919 and 1939.

The presumption does not mean that immigration to Swedish territory was absent before the interwar period, though. In fact, between the second half of the nineteenth century and 1919, Sweden (and Scandinavian countries, in general) was characterised as a country of emigration due to the ‘wave of emigration’ to the United States (Rasmussen, 1993). Hence, migration has always been embedded in Swedish history and is, thus, the inevitable foundation of the modern population we nowadays call Swedes. However, there has not been the same amount of immigrants (or emigrants) as there are today, as will be shown below. The standpoint of Sweden as a once absolutely homogenous society is therefore an assumption of empirical inadequacy. Rather, Sweden ought to be considered as a country which throughout history has had a relatively homogeneous population. This means that both Sweden and its population are nothing more than products of earlier warlords’ relative fortunes of war. Applying the concept of ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson, 2006) appears to be relevant in order to understand how a political pursuit for identity is compatible with nationalism.

Accordingly, due to the ongoing ‘refugee crisis,’ Swedish far-right advocates have come to identify Sweden as a contaminated ‘heterogeneous’ state vis-à-vis its alleged mono-cultural past (Gardell, 2014, pp. 129-130). Alas, this ‘Swedish-ness’ has evolved into an important issue on every front in Swedish policy, uttered in the diffuse terms of ‘Swedish values.’ Hence, the aim of this article is to investigate the correlation between the maintenance of a status quo in Swedish policy and the radicalisation of people who believe in the protection of the Nation.

This article is divided into five inter-related sections. First, it intends to introduce our theoretical framework and methodology. Second, it examines how immigration has been a trigger for the radicalisation of far-right advocates. Third, it examines how national protection functions as a ‘divine’ mission. Fourth, the ‘religiously’ motivated protection of the nation is analysed as ‘racial warfare’ against foreign ‘enemies.’ Fifth, this article provides an account of the current political landscape by examining the political remnants mentioned in the first four parts of the paper.

Theoretical Framework and Methodology

In order to obtain tools for our scrutiny, attention is paid to a phenomenon Michel Foucault (2013) called ‘regimes of truth’ (pp. 39-40). ‘Regimes of truth’ is an important concept since it allows us to try to explain why we hold certain knowledge as ‘true,’ which, in turn, serves as an explanation of how and why one can claim to ‘know’ the characteristics of another collective, culture, or society – albeit imagined. As a theoretical tool, ‘regimes of truth’ is useful when analysing political events. Mostly, the article relies on academic literature and newspaper articles.

Nationalism is a vast phenomenon, and hence difficult to describe accurately in an article of this size. Nevertheless, our aim is to conceptualise nationalism as an inevitable effect of modernity, which means that nationalism is a social construction, consisted of the perception that culture comes with politics (Gellner, 1986). Nationalism is, hence, not restricted to the far-right, albeit it is the scope of this article. Therefore, it is quintessential to mention that the term ‘far-right’ is used in a general way throughout this article. For example, Fascism is not, politically speaking, solely a far-right phenomenon per se if we place it on a traditional left-right political scale (tax-rates for ‘right’ citizens are in fact more leftist since the ethnically correct population ought to be privileged) but a diverse ideology (Griffin, 1993). Far-right is thus not equivalent to Fascism in this article, neither is it excluding. Rather, ‘far-right’ intends to include every actor of nationalism, Nazism, and Fascism.

Immigration: A Trigger

When looking at the aftermath of the UK referendum vote, one does not have to dig deep to notice one of its key precursors: immigration, especially immigration from countries with a Muslim majority population (Hussein, 2016). Scrutinising how immigrants are portrayed by another European Union (EU) member state – in this case, Sweden – is therefore essential in order to understand the current European political milieu. For that reason, it is essential to examine the national conservative Swedish Democrats Party’s (Sverigedemokraterna) impact on a national identity and how they function as a breeding ground for far-right adherents.

Due to the evolution of the war in Syria and Iraq, the rise of Islamic State (also known as ISIS/ISIL) and the atrocities conducted by the Assad regime, as well as political uprisings in Somalia and Eritrea, an urgent refugee crisis has emerged (Holmes & Casteñada, 2016, p. 12). The crisis has also affected the EU. Certainly, since the EU failed to reach a deal on a ‘refugee quota’ (‘EU fails migrant quotas’, n.d.) in 2015 – a quota meant to regulate the distribution of refugees among EU countries – Germany and Sweden were the only countries that expressed a clear will to solve the crisis, hence were left to bear the mass influx. Sweden, with a population of only 9.9 million, shouldered a heavy burden. In 2010, the year before the Arab Spring, Sweden had a net migration of 49,948 people. In 2015, the net migration had increased to 78,410 people, including a gross immigration record of 80,000 people in October and November alone (Statistiska Centralbyrån, 2016; Regeringskansliet, 2015). In comparison, Sweden’s net migration peak in 1994, due to the civil war in former Yugoslavia, was 50,937 people (Statistiska Centralbyrån, 2016).

This, of course, has had an impact on Swedish policy. In April 2015 Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and his Social Democratic Party manifested a spirit of solidarity, stating that ‘there is no limit’ on how many refugees Sweden could handle. A couple of months later, in October, the government announced Sweden was ‘approaching its limit,’ and a month later, the government decided to limit immigration substantially in order to ‘catch their breath’ (Regeringskansliet, 2015).

National Preservation: A ‘Religious’ Mission?

The political impacts of the refugee crisis have been a breeding ground for far-right advocates, who seek to ‘preserve’ what they perceive as quintessential for the national identity (Nordensvard & Ketola, 2015). According to their ‘preserving’ agenda, migration is not merely about political dissatisfaction and social restoration; it is about a religiously utopic, altruistic, and apocalyptic resistance against a foreign enemy. As Simone Weil (2002) has proposed, the ‘State’ (hereafter, the Nation) is perceived as sacred, not in the sense an idol is sacred, but in the way physical objects – the altar, the baptismal water, the organ – are sacred and serve a religious purpose (p. 180). In addition, self-appointed ‘servants’ of the Nation know they are only material objects; but they are material objects that are regarded as sacred because they serve a sacred purpose (ibid.).

This may seem farfetched by some, exaggerated by others. It appears farfetched because of the religious parallels with a political ideology; exaggerated because ‘altruistic’ actions are commonly believed to be conducted solely by terrorists. In a Swedish context, ‘altruistic’ actions have been illustrated through the low-intense racial warfare of Peter Mangs in Malmö 2003-2010 (Gardell, 2015) and John Ausonius in Stockholm in the early 1990s (Tamas, 2005). The most recent example was the school shooting in Trollhättan, located on the Swedish west coast, on October 22, 2015, conducted by 21-year-old Nazi sympathiser Anton Lundin-Pettersson who injured one person and killed three because they did not suit his ideological picture of an ideal (that is, autochthonous) Swedish citizen (Malmgren, 2015).

These perpetrators did not act alone. Neither do those who vandalise synagogues and mosques, or making racist utterances. They should be considered as products of a discourse that elevates the Nation and its alleged autochthonous people, a continuously maintained idea on racist online forums (Kettrey & Laster, 2014). In Sweden, websites like Avpixlat (Swedish equivalent to the American Breitbart) and Politiskt Inkorrekt (Politically Incorrect) have been influential, especially in the ‘counter-jihadist’ milieu (Hannus, 2012, p. 32). The emphasis on national preservation has not only been a common feature for aforementioned perpetrators, but also for Anders Behring Breivik, who conducted the terror attacks in Norway in July, 2011, and ‘indirect actors’ who have affirmed these actions. Hence, the indirect violence might be perceived as most dangerous since Breivik, Ausonius, Mangs, and Lundin-Pettersson sought justification that is reproduced by the discourse of aforementioned, or similar, websites and forums. They put will into action in order to eradicate the cause of what Breivik described in his 1516-pages manifesto 2083: A European Declaration of Independence (2011) as a ‘rape of Europe’ (p. 706).

A premise for this assumption is that collectives who are not perceived as autochthonous should disappear, hence an act of homogenisation. The assumption is comparable with the famous thesis of social anthropologist Mary Douglas (2002), who argued that ‘where there is dirt, there is a system’ (p. 44). Essentially, this means that everything has to be in the right place, otherwise it becomes ‘dirty.’ For example: shoes are not dirty, but it is dirty with shoes on the dining table; food is not dirty, but it is dirty with food on the floor; a flowerbed is not dirty, but it is dirty with weed in the flowerbed; Muslims in the Middle East is not dirty, but it is dirty with Muslims in Europe.

How this act of homogenisation should be implemented is interpreted differently among far-right sympathisers. One the one hand, we have political advocates who state that the country should close its borders, and/or deport (in this case) non-Swedish citizens to ‘where they came from.’ On the other hand, we have ‘crusade’ oriented advocates with more lethal intentions. As explained above, the latter has been demonstrated in several subjective actions of substantial proportions.

Alas, the emergence of ‘crusader’ advocates is shown statistically. For instance, a Norwegian study from 2015 verified that Sweden is the country in Western Europe with most right-wing fatalities over the last 25 years (Enstad & Ravndal, 2015). Another study, conducted by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) (2016), which analysed lone-actor terror attempts in Europe between January 1, 2000, and December 31, 2014, concluded that right-wing perpetrators are almost as common as religiously inspired perpetrators, and that right-wing actors are significantly most lethal (p. vii). Whereas religiously inspired groups conducted 38 per cent of all lone-actor terror deeds (of which 8 per cent were fatal), right-wing perpetrators accounted for 24 per cent of launched attacks (of which 48 per cent were fatal). By those who showed political engagement, right-wing actors were most likely to be active in various political movements (ibid.).

‘Racial Warfare’

‘Racial warfare,’ as it is defined by Peter Mangs, who we encountered above, thus elevates a grey zone between political and religious engagement. The people of the Nation – an ideological replacement of the notion of being the chosen people of God – has reached an apocalyptic state: the ‘good’ (national ‘preservers’) are facing the ‘evil’ (predominantly, Muslims). Hence, we find that the aforementioned parallel between violently motivated religious and political movements is neither farfetched nor exaggerated. As Ludo Abicht (1995) has proposed, ‘’god’… has now been dethroned by the sovereign nation’ (p. 253).

In the cases of political and ‘crusader’ advocates, both have sought political justification for their actions. In a Swedish context, the Swedish Democrats Party has grasped this need. Even though the party is still no more than a significant part of the opposition – the latest poll shows they have 17.7 per cent of the votes (‘Novus/TV4 väljarbarometer’, n.d.) – and it is the Social Democratic Party that de facto conducts the current strained refugee policy, it is nonetheless the Swedish Democrats who have most strongly promoted the view that (Muslim) immigrants are ‘troubles for the future’ (Sannerstedt, 2015, p. 406). In October 2009, their party leader, Jimmie Åkesson, published a debate article in Aftonbladet, one of the larger daily newspapers in Sweden, in which he stated that ‘Muslims are our biggest foreign threat since the Second World War’ (Åkesson, 2009). Moreover, Åkesson argued in the same article that ‘one of the many paradoxes of multiculturalism’ is that it has only been able to flourish ‘in the postmodern, oikophobic West’ which is the main reason why ‘Sweden’s multicultural political elite is completely blind for the dangers of Islam and Islamisation.’

Through the ongoing normalisation process of Muslims as an alleged national threat, this view has also begun to achieve academic acceptance and recognition. A report published by the Swedish Defence University in 2009, claimed that a suburb of the Swedish city of Malmö was a ‘nest’ for ‘ultra-radical Islamic extremists’ whose ‘religious police’ maintained order with ‘physical harassments’ (Ranstorp & dos Santos, 2009). Similarly, Sweden’s Green Party was accused by a professor at the same university in April 2016 of being ‘infiltrated by Islamists’ (Svahn, 2016). Likewise, Ann Heberlein, Senior Lecturer at Lund University, is afraid that immigrants ‘never become “Swedish”’ because they live on ‘islands of minority cultures within the majority society’ (Heberlein, 2016).

These notions correspond with the increasing anti-Muslim regime of truth: Muslims are accused of threatening Swedish ideals, such as liberty, equality, and democracy. They are perceived as anti-democratic, misogynists, and potential terrorists. Muslims are constantly perceived as an anti-thesis to the collectively acknowledged ‘Swedish-ness’ (Gardell, 2011, p. 9). In short, Islam is, in the words of former Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington (2002), ‘the only civilization which has put the survival of the West in doubt’ (p. 210). For that reason, far-right advocates believe the Nation has to be protected from the savage Muslim society which members are believed to ‘start killing’ only ‘to satisfy their blood lust’ (Breivik, 2011, pp. 501-502). Seventeen burned-down Swedish asylum accommodations in only six months in 2015 (Johansson, 2015), ought to be considered as a practical installation of such a national protection and resistance.

Political Repercussions

Due to the aforementioned normalisation process, the Swedish Democrats’ pro-Swedish ethnic policy has progressed and they have successively obtained greater influence in Swedish policy-making. In 2010, they were elected to parliament after getting 5.7 per cent of the total votes. At the next election, 2014, they got 12.86 per cent of the votes (Sannerstedt, 2015, p. 399). As shown above, they are now approaching 20 per cent. They have grown so rapidly because their policy appeals both to voters’ reason and emotion. Most importantly, however, their policy is clear, simple, and dichotomous: Swedish welfare versus national destruction; caring for Swedish retirees, or immigrants; maintaining Swedish culture, or exposing it to ‘Islamisation.’ They urge supporters who prefer national maintenance over national destruction, to take action since ‘a multicultural society leads to a splitting policy where different groups are set against each other in an inauspicious way’ (Sverigedemokraterna, 2016). As we have seen, some take such commands more literally than others.


To sum up, the ‘servants’ of the Nation should be perceived as autochthonous products who are endogenously created within an assumed geographical originality. To justify their ‘purpose’ of defending the Nation from degeneration and allegedly threatening ‘ethnic’ groups, Muslims par excellence, they need political justification for their actions. In that regard, the Swedish Democrats Party has grasped this need. Even though the party itself is not explicitly behind these attempt, nor the radical political interpretations, it surely has been influential when emphasising a sort of national apocalypse on a daily political agenda. Therefore, struggle for maintaining a national status quo in Sweden is found in the far-right advocates attempt to preserve a ‘pure’ and ‘pristine’ national identity.


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