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:

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.”

  • Abgar

    The Christians of Södertalje are Syriacs, 90 procent of the christians call themselves Syriac. Only a small minority calls himself an Assyrian.

  • tasnim

    Thanks Abgar. I came across several different percentages cited but found nothing official. I’m not sure if there is an official number or how it would have been measured, but yes all the references I saw had Assyrian as a minority.

  • Ashour

    Syriac is not an ethnicity. It is a language spoken by the first Christians of the world who were ethnically different. But, today’s Syriac-speaking people are Assyrians whether they are from orthodox church, catholic church or church of the east. In fact, Syriac taken from the geographical name, “Syria” is the same as Assyrian when we notice that early Greeks could not pronounce the sound “A” in the beginning of names. Dear Abgar, even your name is the name of the king Abgar Okumo from Edessa (Shanli Urfa) in today’s Turkey. No matter what you call yourself, your name is Assyrian.

    May Assur Bless Assyrian Nation,

  • Krista

    Self-identification (what people call themselves) is still pretty relevant regardless of what others call them or have called them. We’ve established that Syriac and Assyrian are both fairly complicated identities, and might be claimed or ascribed by different people in different ways. Now let’s get back on topic…

  • joseph Odisho

    It would be appropriate to analyze these inter immigrants issues in the relationship of what countries they have immigrated from. Can anyone deny the agony of the Assyrian (Syriacs-Chaldeans) immigrants from Iraq? Over one thousand are killed by extremist Moslems, including clerics, women and children. If this is not a racism or prejudice what then it could be called? The scars of the immigrant’s wounds are not healed yet and they still bare the trauma of war, not to forget the other discriminating acts that are still apparent in Moslem and Arab countries, respectfully, when they are traveling through and transiting into Europe.
    It is also relevant or important to analyze the inter Moslem and inter Arab relations as portrayed by the Moslem immigrants. Moslem immigrants, especially the youth, are confined, not by choice, to live in the same social structure that they came from; by doing so they are denied to adopt and live full life of freedom in free societies. Here conflict may take different behavior that may lead to family rebellion, crimes against the society and racist acts against other groups. As far as inter Moslem relations that is apparent in the Sunni-Shii division it is equal in intensity to the inter Christian-Moslem relations, as far as racism is concerned. Racism is not confined to ethnic or religious diversity.
    It would be beneficial for concerned Moslem activist and organization to pay attention to the causes of failure and stagnation in their society and start working to remedy those problems in scientific methodology, far from religious influence, and cooperate with local governments. If you want to make a case out of racism act committed against a Moslem it should be directed at the individuals in question, by generalizing the case you have stained all Assyrians (Syriacs-Chanldeans) as racists; this is far from truth. Your are trying to do two things, one, fueling the situation and two, getting sympathy and support for your agenda that is far from just; you are trying to turn your back to the good of these new societies that we live in and want to create theocratic societies like Iran, Somalia and Saudi Arabia, etc.
    All immigrants should accept the changes that emanate from their new country; belief or conviction should remain personal and separate from politics, if this is achieved it will lead to prosperous and just society where all are equal and protected by the law of the land. There is one American saying that signifies this daunting attitude “Love it or Leave it”.

    • tasnim

      Thanks for your comment Joseph, I appreciate the feedback though to be honest I’m not sure how some of the points you raised relate to my post. I was writing about a case that was making headlines in Sweden that day. I can’t see how you extrapolate from that and say that I am trying to turn my back on the society I live in in order to create a theocracy. It seems rather a stretch…unless I misunderstood you?

      The background of these communities is relevant, I agree with you there, and mentioned it twice in my post. Many have suffered terrible persecution in the countries they immigrated from, which makes it all the more sad to see a vicious cycle of this sort.

      You mentioned inter-Muslim conflicts…I think if you visit this site regularly you will find it is a regular topic of discussion, as it should be. As for fueling the situation – no. That was not what I was doing. I made a point of mentioning the Assyrian communities are among the most successful and well-integrated immigrant groups in Sweden. However, I do think the situation in Södertälje requires attention, and that is not just my opinion – read the Swedish press. My interpretation of “love it or leave it” does not lead me to think it means remain blind and mute to the problems in the society you love.

  • Rupert Schweinsteiger

    As beeing a bit like the the fox in the hennhouse here i must say though i really wanna say i think much of what is written and debated here is very intressting and though you are are muslim/muslims i think it´s brave that some of the questions on the page here has what i thought is that not many dare to open discuss!? Not many muslims i know should dare to openly discuss and disect from diffrent kind of angels and diffrent views and for that i say well done RS Dackebloggen2012

  • Anneke

    @ Joseph: On one hand you blame Tasnim that she generalised “all Assyrians as racists” (which I did not read anywhere in her post) and then you continue to say that (Muslims) “want to create theocratic societies like Iran, Somalia and Saudi Arabia”. Ehm, who generalises here? I personally know very few Muslims who would actually be interested in living in theocratic societies, let alone establish new ones all over the globe.

    And then again: Can anyone deny the agony of any refugee?

  • Malke bar Zeytin

    @ Anneke, it is one thing to generalize the acts of 2 or 4 teenagers and to ascribe it to a whole community as compared to Egypt (or other ME countries) who, at this point 50% of the population is voting for a theocratic government and society. Please get your perspective in order.

    • Krista

      @Malke: Okay, but Egypt doesn’t represent all Muslims; neither does the Middle East. Not to mention that many of the votes for the Muslim Brotherhood in the recent election are less about voting *for* a theocratic government and more about voting *against* the old regime…

  • Malke bar Zeytin

    The Muslim brotherhood is the sole power in Egypt after the army. Let’s not kid ourselves about this.
    How about Turkey who has moved to a more theocratic based government or Iran that did so more severely in the 70s. How about Libya, Tunisia and maybe Yemen now after the Arab Spring which have gone or are going more theocratic. How about Mali which has been taken over by Theocratic rebels or how about Somalia which is fighting a war to install a theocratic government. You will be able to add Syria to the theocratic country list if the “rebels” take control of the government. Almost of the Arab countries of the Arabian peninsula which are ruled by kings and princes and who also have a religious theocratic agenda. Iraq has become more theocratic since the fall of the Baath party. The trend is clear and undeniable and for minorities living in these countries it marks very hard times ahead.

  • Arameans aka Syriacs

    I would like to stress to Ashur that you claimed that syriacs is not an ethnicity. Ok that’s your opinion but let me tell you that in our own litterature written by our own forefathers long after the fall of the Assyrian empire fell in 612 BC and the Aramean city states lost their independence in 732 BC that; if you study how we designated ourselves regadless churchdenomination from the first centuries of christianity until modern concept of nationalism was born (long before assyrian nationalistic movment was even born and the Aramean and Chaldean nationalism was born in 1850s till the present) you will see that our forefather continoustly used the names Suryoyo (Suryaya) and Oromoyo (Aramaya, Aramean, Aramaic) as synonyms. There is no evidence of continous use of the name Suryoyo (Suryaya) and Othuroyo (Aturaya) in our own entire corpus of litteratur prior to 1850s.

  • Abgar

    These are all Arameans. Arameans=Syriacs