It took days for police to acknowledge the extent of the mass attacks on women celebrating New Year’s Eve in Cologne. The Germans were lucky; in Sweden, similar attacks have been taking place for more than a year and the authorities are still playing catch up. Only now is the truth emerging, both about the attacks and the cover-ups. Stefan Löfven, our Prime Minister, has denounced a ‘double betrayal’ of women and has promised an investigation. But he ought to be asking this: what made the police and even journalists cover up the truth?
The answer can be discovered in the reaction to the Cologne attacks. Sweden prides itself on its sexual equality and has even pioneered a feminist foreign policy. When hundreds of women were reported to have been molested and abused in Cologne — at the hands of an organised mob — the reaction from Swedish politicians and pundits ought to have been one of outrage.
Instead, we were told that the events in Cologne were not unusual. An article in Aftonbladet, Sweden’s largest tabloid, argued that it was racist to point out that the perpetrators in Cologne had been described as North African or Arab, since German men had carried out sexual assaults during Bavaria’s Oktober-fest. Another Aftonbladet article said that reporting on the Cologne attacks was bowing to right-wing extremism. Over the last week, we have been told over and over that the real issue is men, not any particular culture — that Swedish men are no better.
Then last week Sweden’s own stories began to emerge. During the We Are Sthlm music festival, large groups of young men harassed girls sexually. It began in 2014 and it also went on during last year’s festival. According to internal police reports the groups were ‘so-called refugee youths primarily from Afghanistan’. The youngest of the victims was 12 years old.
The police claimed that there were ‘relatively few crimes and arrests considering the number of participants’. Internal reports told a different story. The police were shocked enough by the harassment to try to come up with a strategy to handle the groups of molesters at the festival — a strategy that was evidently unsuccessful. The trouble was that they were trying to deal with a problem but would not speak its name. As Peter Ågren, police chief in central Stockholm, put it: ‘Sometimes we do not dare to say how things really are because we believe it will play into the hands of the Sweden Democrats.’ As we now know, police officers in Stockholm are instructed not to reveal the ethnicity or nationality of any suspects lest they be accused of racism.
The Sweden Democrats are the anti-immigration populist force in Sweden — no longer a fringe element but the third–largest party after the election of 2014. Opinion polls suggest they are growing ever stronger. They are reviled by all other parties, who try to fight them by rejecting their every claim as baseless. As a result, immigration cannot be discussed frankly in Sweden. If you mention anything negative about refugees or immigration, you’re accused of playing into the hands of the reviled far-right. As a result, even legitimate concerns are silenced or labelled xenophobic. The recent migration crisis has changed this only slightly.
When a country cannot hold honest debates, there are consequences. Take Roger Ticoalu, director of events at Stockholm City Council. He said he had been utterly unaware of the risk of such attacks:
‘It was a modus operandi that we had never seen before: large groups of young men who surround girls and molest them.’
The German police made a similar point: they are used to handling drunks. But gangs of young men encircling and then groping women at large public gatherings: who has ever heard of such a thing?
In the Arab world, it’s something of a phenomenon. It has a name: ‘Taharrush gamea’. Sometimes the girls are teased and have their veils torn off by gangs of young men; sometimes it escalates into rape. Five years ago, this form of attack was the subject of an award-winning Egyptian film, 678. Instances of young men surrounding and attacking girls were reported throughout the Arab Spring protests in Cairo in 2011 and 2012. Lara Logan, a CNN journalist covering the fall of Hosni Mubarak, was raped in Tahrir Square. Taharrush gamea is a modern evil, and it’s being imported into Europe. Our authorities ought to be aware of it.
But they can’t be made aware, when any mention of the issue is discouraged. This leaves the police unprepared, and leaves the public feeling not just vulnerable but deceived. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to wonder how many more instances there have been where Swedish police have taken political considerations into account before disclosing information.
Before Dan Eliasson became Sweden’s national police commissioner, he tweeted that he ‘vomited’ when he saw Jimmie Åkesson, party leader of the Sweden Democrats, on television. To what degree were his own personal political views imprinted on the Swedish police? Were the officers who covered up the sexual harassments responding to signals from Eliasson? Did they think that making a fuss about immigrant crime was a bad career move, and did that stop them doing their duty?
Even now, Swedes are still trying to figure out what exactly has been going on. Reports are emerging of Taharrush gamea-style harassment in Malmö on New Year’s Eve. According to police reports, hundreds of refugee youths from Afghanistan roamed around and ‘surrounded intoxicated girls/women and harassed them’. Similar incidents are being reported from towns such as Kalmar and Karlstad. The Finnish authorities are handling reports of organised sexual harassment perpetrated by Iraqi immigrants.
We Swedes pride ourselves on our unrivalled record on respecting women’s rights. But when women’s rights conflict with the goal of accommodating other cultures, it’s almost always women who are pushed to the side. This week, the chattering classes in Sweden will be worrying about how this story plays into the hands of the Sweden Democrats. But events have moved beyond that. The truth may be painful. Yet, as we have seen, concealing the truth is worse.
Ivar Arpi is an editorial page writer for Svenska Dagbladet.