December 25, 2005
Sweden's rising Muslim tide
Home to one of Europe's most Muslim cities, the country may also be host to increasing radicalism.
By James Brandon | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
MALMO, SWEDEN - As a group of Swedish Muslims begin their midday prayers in a mosque still blackened by smoke from a recent Molotov-cocktail attack, Bejzat Becirov, director of Malmo's Islamic Center, is talking urgently.
"I'm afraid the same thing will happen here as in Paris," says Mr. Becirov, a Macedonian immigrant who opened Scandinavia's first mosque in this city in southern Sweden in 1984.
Malmo, which has one of the highest percentage of Muslims of any western European city, illustrates the challenges facing a continent whose native population is increasingly wary of a rapidly expanding and often discontented Muslim population.
But while the mosque has been a target for attacks since its founding, there is increasing evidence that Islamic militants are gaining a foothold in Sweden by successfully exploiting racial tensions and Muslim anger over economic underachievement, and ghettoization.
Bosnian authorities arrested a Muslim Swede in Sarajevo in October for possession of explosives while Islamist websites published several inflammatory but unsubstantiated claims in late summer that a mujahideen training camp has been established in southern Sweden.
Meanwhile moderate Muslims like Becirov, whose progressive mosque is a place where Sunnis and Shiites praying side by side, are increasingly under fire from both Swedish nationalists who see them as dangerous representatives of radical Islam and Muslim fundamentalists who see them as selling out to Western ideas.
"It's been like hell on earth to deal with this whole process," sighs Becirov, displaying Swedish press accounts of the last firebombing of the mosque Oct. 21.
But although the attacks on Becirov's mosque have generated support from Muslims in Sweden and abroad, many Malmo Muslims are turning to increasingly radical forms of Islam - in some cases alienated by Becirov himself.
"This mosque is no good," says one Palestinian refugee who works nearby. "The imam, he is no good. He says one thing and he does another," he says, accusing him of un-Islamic activities, such as drinking alcohol.
Such suspicions may be pushing even mainstream Swedish Muslims toward radical street preachers, especially in the nearby suburb of Rosengaard where Muslim immigrants form a substantial majority.
"These neighborhoods are hunting grounds for Islamists but how many and how organized [they are] it's impossible to say," says Aje Carlbom, a Malmo University researcher who began studying Rosengaard society nearly ten years ago.
"Twenty years ago when the mosque was established they [its founders] had some political problems and pushed the different factions out," Carlbom explains. "These small factions established their own mosques in basements."
It is a pattern echoed across Europe. While moderate Muslims may disown extremists and bar them from mosques, they do little to challenge extremist ideologies and the radical preachers merely regroup elsewhere, out of sight of both mainstream Muslims and the authorities.
"I know for a fact that there are small extremist groups in Malmo," says Arjumand Carlstein, a social worker at Malmo Islamic Centre, attached to the mosque. "And apart from the organized groups, you also have the Internet and extremists can easily communicate with each other in other parts of the world."
This global phenomenon appears to be spreading to Sweden. In August, several short video clips appeared on the Internet purporting to show experimental detonations of explosives in a wooded valley, supposedly in Sweden.
In September, another Islamist website claiming to speak for Ansar Al-Sunna, the Iraqi terrorist group, said the group had established "a small isolated training camp in southern Sweden."
"We wish to inform the Ummah," said the website, referring to the global Islamic community, "that the Army of Ansar Al-Sunnah in Sweden are well-trained to defend our holy countries ... having established a Mujahideen training camp, located in Skane [the region in southern Sweden that includes Malmo] ... with the help from Allah."
The website's authors claimed that the camp would only be used to train fighters for combat abroad. However they also promised to "capture and punish" the Swedish Evangelist preacher Runar Sogaard who in March called Islam's Prophet Mohammad a "pedophile" for marrying a girl who, according to many Muslim traditions, was only 9 years old.
The website has since been closed down, and experts interviewed for this article were unaware of any such camps. However, the jihadists' claims suggest that problems lie beneath the placid exterior of Swedish society.
While lavish welfare payments have to some extent enabled Sweden to buy off Muslim discontent more effectively than France, some think this has also fomented other problems by preventing many immigrants from advancing economically or socially in Swedish society.
"The Swedish system is very pacifying," says Carlstein. "A lot of people feel you don't have to get a job or learn the language," adding that unemployment and social immobility can help fuel radicalism.
But so far there have been no terrorist attacks or Paris-style revolts in Sweden, and violence in Malmo has been largely between criminal gangs, together with some sporadic attacks against Jewish targets and municipal buses.
"France has a tradition of revolt and demonstration against the state," says Jonathan Friedman, professor of social anthropology at the nearby University of Lund. "But in Sweden it's almost as if the state has sided with the immigrants against the Swedish working class."
"Sweden thinks of itself as immune from terrorism because of its foreign policies," adds Magnus Ranstorp, an analyst at the Swedish National Defence College.
"But one has to be worried about issues like in Holland," he continues, referring to the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, "although it would take a lot for something like that to happen in Sweden."