Political Week in Visby. The cause and effects of Islamist radicalisation, specifically in Swedish suburbs, as for example Tensta in Stockholm and Rosengård in Malmö, was the main subject of a panel discussion arranged by the Swedish National Defence Collage during the Political Week.
The three participants in the panel were Maajid Nawaz, with a history in radical Islamist groups, but now is Director of Quilliam Foundation, a British counter-extremism think tank, and Dr. Magnus Ranstorp from the Swedish National Defence College, who earlier this year published a much noticed report about radical Islamism in Rosengård, and finally Nalin Pekgul, President of the Social Democrats Women’s organization.
The discussion to a large degree dealt with the strong reactions that Dr. Ranstorp’s report received in the Swedish public debate. Many of Sweden’s islamologist questioned the report and many scholars were critical about the way the study had been carried out.
“I am very sad with the debate following the publication of the report. There were to much focus on the form and not the content”, Magnus Ranstorp said.
He described how he wrote the report, commissioned by the Government and the Ministry of Integration, having been living abroad for a long time and knowing nothing about the situation in Rosengård, writing from a blank table and without preconceptions.
The report was simply what officials and local authorities working in Rosengård were saying. They saw a growing radicalization among the youths living in a social problematic suburb, with crowded housing, extremely high unemployment and many young people exposed to a cultural clash, resulting in shattered identities.
Nalin Pekgul confirmed that this was in line also with her own experience from Tensta, a suburb in Stockholm. Some people of the community acts like ‘thought police’, trying to control the behavior of other residents. Especially women and young girls are exposed and it is not uncommon that young girls are forced to marry with men they do not know.
“Some said in the interviews that they had lived a freer life in their home country”, Magnus Ranstorp said, and Nalin Pekgul once again agreed.
“I was able to wear shorter dresses in Kurdistan than I can do in Tensta. Men from the garage mosques harass you and say bad things about me to my children”, Pekgul said.
A couple of years ago she received much media coverage when she publicly said she wanted to move away from Tensta, when her children told her that other people said they were not Muslim, since she didn’t carry a veil. She however never moved away since she got so much positive response from others living in Tensta.
Maajid Nawaz told about his background as a radical Islamist from the age of 16. How he quickly climbed in the ranks and started exporting the organisation to other countries, for example Pakistan, Denmark and Egypt. It was first when he served a five years prison sentence in Egypt that he started to question his ideological beliefs. Today he is totally devoted to fight against radical Islamism and other forms of political extremism.
Nawaz described Islamists as a tiny minority among Muslims and stressed that Islamism is not the same thing as Islam.
“We where chased away from the mosques when we were trying to recruit”, Nawaz said.
He thinks it is important to make a difference between religious extremist and the political extremism of Islamists. One could be a very orthodox and conservative Muslim, without wanting to kill people who do not share the same beliefs, and one could be a radical Islamist without being especially pious or having much knowledge about what the Koran says.
He took himself as an example, when he was an active Islamist, no one could for example tell that he was an Islamist by how he was dressed. An many of the Islamist in Europe is often very well educated.
“Islamism is a European and modern ideology that is more about extremism and fascism than devotion to religion”, Nawaz explained and took as an example how the group he was involved in started in Britain and exported itself to traditional Muslim countries as Pakistan, Malaysia and Egypt.
All in the panel agreed that there was something true about that.
“People think it comes from abroad, it is the other way around. People in Sweden can’t understand that it is easier for Islamist to recruit in segregated areas in out cities than in Muslim countries”, Nalin Pekgul said.
“Some of the Islamist I have meet in Great Britain have been more frightening than those I have encountered in the Middle East”, Magnus Ranstorp said.
Nawaz identifies three main causes for growth of Islamic radicalisation. Grievance, i.e. real and imaginary inequity and injustice that causes resentment for Muslim people living in western societies, that there exists a group structure and the Islamist ideology. How the media report on Muslims and the conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq have also played a big role.
Many young Muslims living in the west struggle with their identity since the Islamist ideology says it is a question about “us and them”, the war on terrorism is described as the war on Islam. The bad social situation, with high unemployment and other problems, also plays a major part.
The panel also discussed the more external problem on how governments and authorities treat Muslim members of their societies.
“Governments have adopted the Islamist frame. For example when they treat certain social problems as ‘Muslim’ problems and then interact with imams in order to solve them. But there is no Muslim collective, no Muslim political block. They should treat us like ordinary citizens”, Nawaz said.
He also praised how the U.S. President Barack Obama spoke in his recent speech in Cairo that he addressed to Muslims, not as a counterpart to the west and not as a single political block. Instead he talked about “Muslims around the world” and “Muslim peoples”, stressing the plurality and non-collective aspects.
A problem denied
Nalin Pekgul said that the biggest problem in Sweden, in relation to Islamist radicalisation, is that it is so denied. There is almost a taboo against talking about it, and she mentioned how questioned she herself was when she spoke out about the situation in Tensta. She saw a parallel to how the report of Dr. Ranstorp was received in the public debate.
“It is not anti-Islamic to criticise Islamism”, Nawaz pointed out.
A member of the audience asked Magnus Ranstorp how he reacted when the Director-general of the Security Service in an interview on public radio said that the problems in, for example Rosengård, are “not especially bad”.
“I was very surprised. He does not seem to receive the signals from his subordinated. Neither from the regular police”, Ranstorp said.
He however pointed out that the Security Service handles the problems very well, but that the issue is larger, something the whole society must take seriously.
“I think we are blessed so far for having rather moderate Muslims in Sweden”, he said, describing how different extremist are able to fuel each other. He pointed to the situation in Denmark where the public discussion is more polarised.
“It’s only a mater of time before there is a terrorist attack in Denmark”, Ranstorp said.
The other panellist agreed that the problem must be handled with care, and that a polarised discussion atmosphere only makes things worse.
Despite discussing such a serious threat as Islamist radicalisation and concluding that the issue needs more attention the panel discussion nevertheless ended in a positive tone.
Nalin Pekgul said that she now saw very positive signs in Tensta, where residents have started to assembly at intra-Muslim seminars, with talks between different factions and where moderate Muslims can strengthen their voice in the community.
Maajid Nawaz talked about “an awakening”, where there now is a movement against Islamism among the Muslim majority. And Magnus Ranstorp ended with saying that “the moderate forces are winning”.