3 May 2016

How Sweden’s Green party became tangled with Islamist groups


Do you support the green movement? In Sweden this question has gained something of a double meaning, as prominent members of the Green party have been associated with various Islamist movements. The result is a massive scandal which so far has led to the resignation of the Minister for Housing and Urban Development, and put the Deputy Prime Minister and the Education Minister’s positions in jeopardy.

This strange affair started when Barbaros Leylani, the vice president of the Turkish Swedish association, held a speech about the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Speaking to a Turkish audience in Sweden he explained “Death to the Armenian dogs”. The general public were understandingly quite shocked by this exhibit of racial hatred, which lead to Leylani resigning from his post. This incident, which occurred in the beginning of April, might have been the end of the story.

But a Swedish journalist found that Mehmet Kaplan, a member of the Green party and the Minister for Housing and Urban Development, had in the summer of 2015 had dinner at an event at which not only Barbaros Leylani but also Ilhan Sentürk, the leader of the Swedish chapter of the Grey Wolves, had participated. The Grey Wolves is a Turkish organization which is described as deeply nationalist or even fascist. It has carried out a number of attacks on minority groups such as Armenians. As journalists started digging, they found numerous examples of Mehmet Kaplan, himself of Turkish origin, associating with Islamist and Turk-nationalist organizations. Amongst others, a previous interview with Kaplan surfaced in which he compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jewish people.

Swedish national public television broadcaster SVT chose this time to report about Kaplan having close ties with the regime of Turkish president Recep Erdoğan. Erdoğan is criticized internationally for his mistreatment and attacks against journalists and minorities, as well as possible ties to ISIS. Such associations proved too much for one Swedish minister. On the 18th of April, the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven himself gave an address with Mehmet Kaplan, explaining that Kaplan had resigned from his post.

But that wasn’t the end of the affair.

During recent years two things have been happening in Swedish politics. One is that the Green party has been reaching out to Muslim leaders in the country. In the process, it seems, they have not only established contact with moderate groups, but also with Turkish-nationalists ones and those with an Islamist agenda. Another is that the Green party has become vastly popular amongst journalists. A survey from 2012 has found that 41 per cent of journalists, and the majority of journalists in the public television and radio broadcasters sympathize with the Green party. This can be compared with 7 per cent of the general public who voted for the party in the 2010 and 2014 national elections.

For a long time journalists had not scrutinized the Green party, likely due to their sympathies. Particularly the issue of relations with Islamist and Turk-nationalists groups was sensitive. After all, the Swedish Greens are deeply progressive. Over time the party has shifted its focus from environmental issues to feminism, anti-racism and post-modernism. It sounded strange that Green party representatives would share Islamic and Turk-nationalist values. But once some journalists and editorials started digging on the matter, the scandal kept growing.

A journalist was given a tip about interviewing Yasri Khan, who was nominated to join the board of the Green party. It turned out that Khan refused to shake the hands of female journalists. A Youtube video surfaced from a previous conference in which Khan had been asked: “What is your position, as a Muslim, on Saudi Arabia executing atheist bloggers”. Shockingly, the young politician who together with Mehmet Kaplan has founded the organization Swedish Muslims for Peace and Justice, rambled on for minutes without giving a clear answer to the question. After a heated and short debate, Khan left all political positions in the Green party.

It might seem bizarre that such extreme action and views are being associated with a Green party. After all, the main supporters of the party are urbanites with peaceful values. The Greens are so progressive that they don’t even have a party leader. Rather, they have one woman and one man as spokespersons. The two individuals currently leading the party are Gustav Fridolin, the young Minister for Education, and Åsa Romson, the Minister for the Environment and ceremonial Deputy Prime Minister.

The pair have appeared in a number of media interviews recently. However, they have shown quite some reluctance in distancing themselves from the actions of their colleagues, such as Mehmet Kaplan and Yasri Khan. Romson even sparked her own controversy amidst the whole chaos. When discussing the resignation of Mehmet Kaplan on a morning television broadcast, Romson defended Kaplan by saying: “He has been chairman of Young Muslims in tough situations like the September 11 accidents”. Referring to the 9/11 attacks as accidents didn’t exactly put water on a raging crisis. Even international media started attacking the Deputy Prime Minister for her insensitive remarks. More importantly, Fridolin has been accused himself having close relations to Islamist groups.

It remains to be seen how the scandal will finally end. In a sudden press meeting, called on the 25th of April, both Fridolin and Romson said that they were willing to step down from their positions, if the Green party so wished. The matter will be decided at the party congress to be held on the 13-15th of May. Although calls for one, or both, spokespersons to resign have been made public by prominent Green party members, the outcome is uncertain. Given that the Green party is the junior member of the government, together with the Social Democrats, and that both Fridolin and Romson are prominent cabinet members, a change in leadership might have drastic consequences for Sweden.

One thing is sure – the party congress to be held in two weeks will likely lead to some interesting discussions. The Greens can be described as a super-progressive movement, with great emphasis on women’s rights, minorities’ rights and peaceful activism. Some Green party members accuse the media of unjustly attacking members of a Muslim belief, reflecting anti-muslimism. Others are questioning how the green of the environmental movement has been allowed to intermingle with the green of Islamism. Some views, it seems, are difficult to join under the same roof.

Nima Sanandaji is the president of the European Centre for Policy Reform and Entrepreneurship (www.ecepr.org) and a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies. His latest book is The Nordic Gender Equality Paradox.