Miljonprogrammet, Photo: Mattias Karlsson/CC

Swedish Kurds

Stigmatized, Fetishized


Though habitually dismissed by right-wing pundits as dystopian “no-go zones,” Stockholm’s immigrant neighborhoods are remnants of a once utopian construction project: miljonprogrammet, a mid-1960s public housing program that built one million new homes in a decade (quite the achievement for a country of roughly 8 million inhabitants). The Swedish government’s ambition was to create “good democratic citizens” by making sure every region had schools, cultural spaces and libraries, while attempting to ensure people of varied backgrounds and ethnicities would mix and live side-by-side. The construction of these new buildings, often drab utilitarian concrete towers, facilitated the influx of migrants to Sweden. Coincidently, the units were finished at the very time that the Kurdish people had to flee their home countries.

In 1979 and 1980, the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Iran-Iraq war and a military coup in Turkey quickly led to millions of Kurds suddenly finding themselves embroiled in wars and subject to various programs of ethnic cleansing. The Kurds initially sought refuge in one of the nearby countries — the Kurds in Iraq going to Iran, those in Iran to Turkey, and so on — but a successful petition to the United Nations, instigated by Turkey and Iran who felt overwhelmed by the Kurdish refugees that their governments had helped create, led to many Kurds suddenly finding refuge in Europe. Sweden, desperate for labour and fond of its reputation as a humanitarian paragon, was one of the countries that accepted most Kurdish refugees, alongside Germany and, later, the Netherlands.

When the Kurds arrived, the cheap public housing available as a consequence of miljonprogrammet became a natural place for them to settle, forming communities that they had been prohibited from forming in their home countries (the whole Kurdish language was banned in Turkey at the time, dismissed as something that did not exist and was a perversion of Turkish). Stockholm soon became the city where the most Kurdish cultural activities took place, with dozens of publishers, libraries and cultural centers. Still, to the vast majority of Swedes, the Kurdish refugees were an unknown quantity. As a child, the claim that I was indeed Kurdish was usually met with a puzzled look and a request to point it out on a map.

Most Swedes first learned about the Kurds in connection with the botched investigation into the murder of the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme. The Chief of the special investigation unit, Hans Holmér, made a tenuous link to the Kurdish liberation movement PKK and many Kurds were arrested and questioned to great media fanfare. When the allegations turned out to be completely false, Holmér resigned, but the notion of Kurds as dangerous terrorists was already cemented.

Today, of course, there are popular hoodies that are emblazoned with “Peshmerga,” the name of the Kurdish military forces, as international media has repurposed these people as heroes fighting against ISIS, the ultimate evil. Social media abounds with glamorised pictures of women soldiers on the battlefields, and even a cursory glance across the comment sections of extremist websites show that even racists who are quick to denounce all Muslims as a scourge to be eliminated have a soft spot for the Kurds, who are fighting the good fight.

This generosity, however, is only extended to the Kurds who are not in Europe. When the first immigrants from outside of Europe began to have children, a new term appeared throughout the continent — the storied “second-generation immigrant.” Whereas before, the child of an immigrant would be a Swede if they were born and raised here, the influx of non-whites necessitated a way to demarcate those who may sound Swedish and may know no other cultural identity than the one to be found here, but did not “look” Swedish enough.

At the same time, the miljonprogram-neighborhoods were being left by anyone who could afford it, leaving only the poorest and most destitute. In the neighbourhood I grew up in, the school was regularly vandalised, cars were routinely set aflame. At the time, this was seen as proof of poor people and disaffected youth being troublemakers. Today, this is a sign of untrustworthy Muslims who want to live under Sharia law. The neighborhoods, however, have stayed the same, and to a visitor from New York or London would seem outright idyllic: it is simply the prism through which these segregated areas are viewed that has changed to better conform to a pre-existing narrative.

The Kurds themselves are no longer a homogenous group (if they indeed ever were): there are popular columnists on every end of the political spectrum, and the economist whose arguments are most used by the Swedish far-right is originally a Kurd from Iran. This positioning of Kurdish immigrants across the political spectrum might seem confusing, especially now that so much of right-wing rhetoric is tainted with islamophobia, but it’s worth remembering that many Kurds fled countries that wanted to subjugate them under different religious or ethnic labels than they themselves espoused. In many ways, a not-insignificant part of Kurds are thus perhaps more receptive to islamophobia than an ethnic Swede.  At a recent dinner on the outskirts of Stockholm, a group of seven Kurdish men told me that they would prefer it if Donald Trump won the US election. These were all former refugees, many of whom used to be communists, and yet they were claiming that the fascist rhetoric espoused by a billionaire would be good for them.

“We have seen what the Clintons do for the Kurds: nothing.”

“Trump hates the Muslims, he will be good for us.”

I laughed, in spite of myself. When the alt-right talks about Muslims, they are not talking about ISIS, as these ex-commies eating grilled chicken in Sweden would like to believe. To Trump and demagogues of his ilk, we are all the same, every last one of us.

“You are wrong,” I’m told. “People know who the Kurds are now. It’s not like before.”

Generational and classist issues emerge in many of these conversations, where those who became refugees in the 80s (often educated, political refugees) look down on those who came later. To speak to many older Kurds is to hear echoes of European extremist rhetoric. When I ask a family friend — who doesn’t speak much Swedish, even though he has been here for almost two decades — how he feels about the discourse in Sweden at the moment, comparing immigrants to pests, he tells me that he feels there is truth in it.  “They are right, I feel…” he says. “I mean just look at this neighbourhood. It used to be peaceful and quiet… But now, these people, they just rob people and steal things. I don’t know why we let people like that into Sweden, to be honest.”

We of the younger generations, perhaps more acutely aware of the difficulty in fitting into what is still an quite ethnically homogenous country, and of how difficult it is to enter into the Swedish job market with a name that does not sound “Swedish,” are more conscious of the rise of extremism. Unlike our parents, who often agree with the Sweden Democrats that we children of immigrants are not in fact Swedish, that we always were and always will be Kurds exclusively, we feel stuck between the increasingly hateful rhetoric on the right and the disgusting distortion of our faith that is taking place by religious fanatics. Extremism begets extremism, and if the goal of ISIS is to force the moderate Muslim to choose sides, the current social and political atmosphere is gradually forcing that dichotomy into existence.

The emergence of ISIS as the great bogey-man of the West has had several detrimental effects on immigrant populations, but perhaps especially on the Kurds: with the terrorist group more than willing to claim any attack as its own — see for instance the truck attack in Nice, which is regularly referred to as an ISIS attack with little to no public evidence to support such a claim — Europe’s Middle Eastern immigrants are progressively viewed as sleeper agents, ready to inflict jihad on unsuspecting masses. It doesn’t matter if you do not claim to be religious, if you drink alcohol and could not tell a Koranic Sura from the lyrics of a Britney Spears song: you are inherently untrustworthy and all it takes for you to show your true face is the right circumstances. In extremist right-wing media this is often justified by a couple of out-of-context passages from the Koran regarding taqyia, the allowance to hide your religious beliefs in order to avoid persecution. This, the extremists claim, is proof that people from Muslim nations cannot be trusted. (It is perhaps worth pointing out the irony here in that the right-wing extremist reading of the Koran is just as fundamental and lacking in nuance as that of, say, ISIS.)

For a Kurd this lack of trust is especially insulting since we are the ones actually fighting them, doing the dirty work that no state is willing or able to do. To conflate the Kurds with their worst enemy is a special kind of abuse, one that is augmented by recent pushes to monitor people who return from Iraq or Syria, though many of us go there to visit our families. So we try not to offend, we try to keep our head down, we monitor our language. I no longer answer my phone in public places in case the person calling is a Kurd, not wanting to inflict my foreign tongue on terrified Swedish ears.

Is it a surprise, then, if some people are attracted by jihadist rhetoric? Their vague promise of acceptance is appealing, especially when stuck in a society that you feel wants you less and less, that has tucked you away in areas from where you will never be able to escape, with job opportunities kept at arm’s length. One young jihadist, when interviewed by Swedish media about why he was tempted to join a terrifying death cult, said that newspapers always told him that he was free in Sweden, but that in fact he never felt free.

I went back to the neighborhood where I grew up recently, a neighborhood that would be called a “no-go zone” by people who have never been nor have the inclination to ever go there. It had been years since I’d been back, and it was perhaps most shocking to see how nothing had changed at all. The same pizzeria (different owners), the same two supermarkets. The only difference was that the library, a haven for me as a child, was now a “youth centre.” Kids out there in the no-go zones need to keep out of trouble, after all, more than they need books.