The Case of Södertälje: “Immigrants Can Be Racist Too”

On the 3rd of June, four Assyrian teenagers were sentenced to probation and community service for attacking a Somali Muslim woman in Södertälje, Sweden. The attack happened on November 17, 2011. The woman, who wears a headscarf, had been out to buy some milk from a shop in Hovsjö. On the way home, a group of teenagers kicked a football directly at her back. When she tried to get away they caught up with her, and for the next ten minutes screamed racist insults, spat at and slapped and punched her. One of them then forced her mouth open and spat in her mouth.

Södertälje. Source: lt.se.

Two of the attackers, 17 and 18, have been sentenced to probation, while the other two, 16 and 17, were sentenced to 60 hours of community service. All four are required to jointly pay 27 300 SEK (about 3812 USD)  in damages to the woman. After the sentencing, friends of the four teenagers broke the windows of the woman’s apartment, prompting her to move out of Hovsjö.

The case has sparked renewed discussion about the situation in Södertälje, where the majority among the immigrant population is Syriac/Assyrian/Chaldean. Since the Iraq war, Södertälje has taken in more Iraqi refugees than the US and Canada combined, and has been described variously as Little Iraq, the new Christian Baghdad, and Sweden’s Jerusalem – or Mesopotälje.

Södertälje has long been described as a base for organized crime, and has been cropping up in the news for years now, especially since the police station there was shot up in 2005; this gets widely seen as “blossoms of multiculturalism” amid the far-right Sweden Democrats. There has been outrage in particular about several cases of rape, among the victims a 12-year-old girl who had run away from home. In 2009, LT reported that thousands are “fleeing the area.”

This has been confusing for those who like their anti-immigrant racism to be in line with their Islamophobia. On the popular Swedish forum Flaskback for example, people have been attempting to draw the lines between the categories of Arab and Syriac/Assyrian, Christian and Arab, in a thread entitled “What’s wrong with the Syriacs?” For many, the response has been to blame immigration as a whole. As one commentator puts it, “it’s just a little multiculturalism.” Similarly, the anti-Muslim blog Gates of Vienna has been led into a perplexing discussion over this issue, which forces them to discuss whether being anti-immigration and anti-Muslim can become contradictory when it has to do with Christian immigrants. In one of the blog’s first posts on the topic, the recent wave of immigrants from Iraq following the war are assumed to be Muslim. Once it is realized they are Christian, one has to fall back on anti-Arab racism:

Contrary to what you might expect, the troublemakers of Södertälje are not generally Muslims, but Assyrian Christians from Iraq. The violent Arab tribal culture is not confined solely to Muslims, and has infected the behavior of Assyrian immigrants to Sweden.

But this too becomes problematic when it is pointed out that they aren’t necessarily Arab and that many come from Turkey. Responses then range from describing all “Middle Easterners” as violent to blaming the violence on the religious persecution and oppression suffered by these communities in Muslim countries to many finally giving up and deciding that they’re all just as bad as each other.

What makes the case in Södertäle particularly noteworthy is that, in addition to the targeting of the Muslim minority in the area, there is a widening rift particularly evident in the younger generation between those who identify through their religious identity as Syriac and those who identify through national-ethnic identity as Assyrian, a conflict which is expressed through rival football clubs such as Assyriska FF and Syrianska FC.

Donna El Jammal, the first policewoman to wear hijab, lives in Södertälje. Source: Pitea Tidningen.

As always though, conflict is only part of this story. After all, the first policewoman (in training) with a headscarf in Sweden, Donna El Jammal, lives in Södertälje, although she admits that “being Muslim and living in Södertälje is not easy.”

But as Rakel Chukri describes it, the situation is changing, and “there are thousands of success stories that can balance the doomsday headlines.” By many accounts, Assyrians have been one of the most successful immigrant groups in Sweden  and the fruits of this success story can be seen in Swedish Syriacs such as Södertälje-resident MP Robert Haflef campaigning for Assyrian/Syriac minority and religious rights in countries such as Turkey.

Yet as the comments to this story point out, there is a need for campaigning closer to home, as more needs to be done to promote inter-faith dialogue among communities in Södertälje itself. It is clear that minorities in the area have felt targeted, including ethnic Swedes and Muslims being attacked and insulted and having stones thrown at them. In 2008, in a report about Muslims leaving the area, one of those interviewed made a point about the difference between living in Södertälje as opposed to areas with Swedes and other groups:

With the Swedes and other groups, there has never been a problem with, but here the Assyrians scream “Muslim bastards” and “fucking Muhammed and bin Laden” after us, says Ali.

A case that has stood out and been widely covered in the media is that of Fouad Moor and his family who has written about the problems Muslims experience in Södertälje and who finally gave up and left the area.

The saddest thing about this situation, one blogger writes, is the perpetuation of intolerance it describes:

Young men, sons of Christian parents who fled ethnic and / or religious oppression in their homelands, harassing this man who also fled from religious oppression – it is unbelievable that this is allowed to happen in Sweden!

Ultimately as Sakine Madon argues, whether it comes to the situation in Södertälje where Christians are the majority immigrant population and Muslims are leaving, or in Malmö where Muslims are the majority immigrant population and Jews are leaving, it is time for people to realize that it is not “less racist” for immigrants to commit a racist crime, whether against other immigrants or against ethnic Swedes, and it is wrong to describe these crimes as somehow more “sensitive” than supposedly less complicated cases of non-immigrants committing hate-crimes. As she puts it quite simply, “immigrants can be racist too.”

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