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Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Swedish election, European Muslim communities and the politics of space

This entry was prompted by an article by Andrew Brown that appeared in Saturday's Guardian. Asking whether Sunday's Swedish election could give power to the country's far right, Brown identifies the potency and divisive character of the issue of immigration in Swedish politics. But immigration is not a new phenomenon in Sweden as it has traditionally been a haven for various refugees/asylum seekers and economic migrants. It is clear that the issue the far right Swedish Democrats have been exploiting is Muslim immigration in Sweden and the impact this has on Swedish society at local and national level. But, I think more importantly, Brown's article focuses on the Rosengård district of Malmö and identifies the conflicting perceptions about access and usage of this urban space as one of the key elements in shaping perceptions about Islam, immigration and attitudes towards foreigners in the Swedish election.

This is by no means something new. Back in 2004, Fox News, in a four-part series focusing on the Muslim population of Europe, run a story about the 'sudden influx' of Muslim immigrants in Sweden's third largest city, Malmö, echoing local voices of unease or concern about the perceived islamization of the city. Fox news located in the changing urban ethnoscape a powerful source of symbolic material for the construction of perception of Swedish society as a society 'under siege'. The story featured interviews that stressed the transformation of districts of Malmö into 'lawless' territories, spaces of danger where ambulancemen require a police escort and even the latter need to resort to further police backup in order to protect themselves from crowds of angry immigrants. Further proof of the rapid 'alienation' of Swedish urban space is provided in the form of accounts of the transformation of Swedish schools. 
"You have 1,000 students in a Swedish school. How many are Swedes? Two," said Lars Birgersson, principal of the Rosengård School. Students arrive at age 10 or 12 from countries like Iraq, Iran and Lebanon with no knowledge of Swedish; some have never been to school at all and many classes require interpreters.
The story reporter, Steve Harrigan, a self-fashioned 'expert' on European Muslims and an proponent of the 'Eurabia' thesis (i.e. the creeping islamization of Europe') is in no doubt that Malmö is proof that Islam and Muslim immigration constitute one of the most pressing social problems faced by Sweden and, more broadly Europe.
However, they [Muslims] are the most rapidly growing segment of Swedish society — outsiders who are already inside, posing a challenge to legendary Swedish tolerance that has now been stretched to the breaking point.
What I find particularly interesting is the role played by urban/spatial politics in the construction, or rather the mediation, of a sense of abstract and generalized threat posed by Islam in European societies. It is the construction of a largely imaginary urban geography of no-go areas, of places that are beyond the reach of law, of internal exile for the few Swedes (or French, British, Germans etc) that remain hostages to the changing demographic and social character of such areas, a geography of territories ruled by angry crowds and the irrationality that possesses them that makes  the allegations of the creeping islamization of European urban spaces more believable, more tangible, more threatening. It is the real and imaginary frictions that involve local societies and muslim communities over the use of scarce urban resources, spatial and otherwise that evoke interpretations of European cities (inner, suburbs, cités) as spaces of contestation, adversity, as territories to be defended against the perceived influx of muslim immigrants. It is the urban spaces of cities like Malmö and the ways that they are imagined and lived in that feed islamophobic, anti-immigrant voices and practices.

On the other hand, a combination of the definition of these very spaces as contested, usurped, alien by the 'majority', the perception of the real spatial needs of the muslim communities that inhabit them as alien encroachments on the urban fabric generates a new kind of urban politics, of a politics of presence, visibility and citizenship among Europe's Muslim communities.

But I will return to this issue in another post.

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