When I, Masoud Kamali, arrived to Sweden as a political refugee from Iran in 1987, I had heard a lot about Sweden. While serving time as a political prisoner in Iran, one of my first images of Sweden came from an article that I had read in Iran’s major newspaper, Keyhan, when I was in jail in Iran in late 1970s. It was about Sweden’s charismatic Prime Minister Olof Palme. The article contained a picture of Palme walking his bicycle on the grounds of Stockholm’s famous Citadel and gathering money for the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua. As a leftist believing in a socialist revolution at that time, my prison-mates and I were very impressed by a country in which the Prime Minister dared openly support a leftist/Marxist movement.
At the time that Olof Palme was assassinated in 1986, I had been arrested and jailed in Turkey for trying to leave the country illegally, since I did not have a valid passport and visa. I remember that I could not control my tears since he had become a symbol of democracy and solidarity for me. Though Palme was remarkable for many reasons, his anti-Vietnam war campaign and strong opposition to Apartheid in South Africa were among his impressive political stances.
A few years later in 1989, I began studying Sociology at the University of Linköping in Sweden. Initially and for the first time, I felt that I had another identity instead of just being a “refugee.” Given my student status, I envisioned that my peers with Swedish backgrounds and I would be treated as equals. However, I would quickly learn that (GWF) Hegel was wrong; the abstract could not be understandable if it turns into concrete human action. On the contrary, in many cases quite the opposite is true. Abstract declarations of “Human Rights” and “equality of human beings” propagated by the Swedish government become meaningless when actualized as concrete action. I was not welcome to my Swedish classmate’s “after work” gatherings and to other “student activities.” I realized very soon that even questions such as “Do you like Sweden?” or “Are you happy to be in Sweden?,” were not neutral inquiries and should not be answered in accordance with your actual feelings and genuine sentiments. Such questions are master narrative scripts to be answered subserviently with responses like “Absolutely” (as in “Yes, sir boss!”) in order to “fit in” not as part of a Swedish group but rather in the token role of an “immigrant” who is a symbol of Swedish generosity and solidarity.
In other words, in a (Emile) Durkheimian manner, “if you will be integrated, you should accept your place in society.” Comments such as “You are coming from another culture” and “our cultures are so different” should be accepted without any objection, clarification, or nuance. In lectures on theories of “modernity,” when my professor pointed to me as an example of “those coming from non-modern or traditional societies,” I was not supposed to say anything about centuries of modernization and modern revolutions in Iran. By the way, this is a topic that I eventually explored in my book published by Routledge. I felt that I had to be quiet and even show approval for being “considered a fact” that proved “Western modernization theory.” Against this arrogant and fake ‘fact’ constructed in European (post)colonial academic circles, I published another book on the subject, titled (Liverpool University Press 2006). I hoped to contribute to opening the narrow imperialist and colonial eyes of West-centric academics.
“To Think Freely is Great, but to Think Rightly is Greater”
I realized very soon that there is a “double morality” or “double standard” in Sweden: a private domain and a public domain. However, for any individual to “fit in” society the public domain is much more important. This means that what you think is not important and should not be expressed publicly, or you will be held accountable or even harmed by failing to “think rightly.” This quote—“To think freely is great, but to think rightly is greater,”—by eighteenth century jurist Thomas Thorild is prominently engraved in gold at the entrance of the Grand Auditorium of Uppsala University’s Main Administration Building. Though intended in theory as a quote that promotes social justice, in practice it discourages people from thinking and speaking candidly and honestly because if you do not “think rightly” you will be labelled and sanctioned as being “deviant.”
I have experienced the negative sanctions of “thinking freely” and, worse than that, of communicating my free and honest thoughts publicly in Swedish journalistic and other media outlets. Thinking freely is not a problem as long as you keep your thoughts to yourself or only express them in a very private circle; but “thinking freely” and publicly is strictly taboo. I realized very soon that I had to adjust my thoughts to the tyranny of thinking rightly, which in some cases forced me to “lie.” I tried to convince myself that such “lies” were necessary in order to make parts of my free-thinking public. One of my earliest experiences of “thinking rightly” in Sweden went back to early 1990s. While completing my Master’s degree in Sociology at Uppsala University in 1993, I lived in a dormitory and shared a kitchen with 12 other students. During a dinner in the kitchen as the Swedish Parliamentary Elections were approaching, I asked one of my Swedish friends for which party he was going to vote. He tried to reformulate my inquiry, change the subject and avoid answering my question. When I asked my other dorm mates, they did the same. I felt ignorant and tried to understand why in a democratic society like Sweden, people do not openly discuss their democratic political positions and beliefs. I received several different, but unconvincing, answers. Several years later as I began academic research and writing about white racism and integration in Sweden, many Swedish colleagues and acquaintances would often say to me, “You say what you think” or “You are not afraid of saying what you think.” This repetitive observation was a bit confusing at the beginning. Why were Swedes stating the obvious? I thought that in a democracy you should not be afraid of saying what you think.
When I finished my doctoral education and received my PhD in Sociology from Uppsala University (the “Harvard” of Sweden), I started participating in the public debate on white racism in Swedish media. Experience had taught me that instead of speaking about “racism” in Sweden, you should speak about “integration.” Therefore, I tried to find a compromise by focusing upon “ethnic discrimination” when both conducting research and talking about the experiences of People of Color in Sweden. In other words, I tried to adjust myself to Swedish public norms, by following the custom of “do not say what you think” but adjust yourself to what you are expected to say. Since I was a frequent analyst in Swedish media and often making comments about migration and integration, politicians started contacting me and inviting me in their “inner circles.” As I became a social analyst of importance with expertise on issues of diversity and inclusion, politicians and political parties sought me for their own political agendas. My early political contacts with three Swedish Integration Ministers and other important politicians convinced me that in Sweden racism was “a non-issue” that one should never mention or discuss.
Early Scientific Racism: Swedish Origins
Reading the history of white racism in Sweden made me more concerned about the contemporary denial of racism. Sweden is a country in which one of the earliest institutes of “scientific racism,” namely “The State Institute for Racial Biology” was established in 1922 in Uppsala. The establishment of the institute was a legacy result of the Swedish botanist Carl von Linnaeus’ “Theory of Races” that was elaborated in his book, Systema Naturae, published in 1735. Linnaeus divided human beings into a race-hierarchy based on the color of their skin and their hair. Whites were, of course, the best race and were attributed with the best moral properties in contrast to “blacks,” “yellows,” and “reds,” who were placed under whites’ supremacy. The Institute survived even World War II and changed its name to the “Medical Biological Research Center” in 1958.
This Swedish racist history has also influenced the question of migration. The famous Swedish social democratic inquiry into the “Crisis in the Population Question” was co-authored by Gunnar Myrdal, along with his wife Alva Myrdal, because of concerns about the shortage of the working population in Sweden during the early 1930s. This book suggested that lack the same “qualities” as Swedes. This is the same Gunnar Myrdal who was a famous sociologist that was very critical of racial segregation in the United States and who criticized the disconnect between US ideals about equality and the inhumane treatment of Black Americans in his famous book, In contrast to what he suggested for the U.S., Myrdal claimed that Sweden should introduce policies for Swedes to give birth to more (white) “Swedish children” instead of allowing immigration. Notwithstanding such racist attitudes, the policy was not successful and after World War II the country was forced to actively invite migrant workers to Sweden. However, the migrants were considered “guest workers” who were supposed to return home when Sweden did not need them anymore.
Several years later and after a public debate on the question of “the failed Swedish integration policies,” I was appointed by the Swedish government as the head of a governmental inquiry called in early 2004. Though an honorable, important, and well-intended appointment, as the saying goes, “Good intentions pave the road to Hell!” One Swedish professor who I assumed was my friend warned me:
You have not a clue who you are going to fight against, there are hidden powers in this country; nothing is going to be the same for you as it was before the investigation; you will not even be able to get a job in this country, they are everywhere and very influential.
Since I saw my fight against Swedish racism as an inseparable part of my struggle for social justice, and as a former human and civil rights revolutionary who participated in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, I convinced myself that heading a governmental investigation regarding racialized power inequities was the right thing to do. I thought that people have lost their lives in struggles for humanity and many are losing their hopes and dignity because of the existence of racism in the world in general and in Sweden in particular. Though only one individual on a global battle field, I was determined to do whatever I could to change the racist institutions and structures in Sweden. I have to admit though that I underestimated the huge resistance to the investigation and the role of powerful institutions, entities, and persons in opposing me and my investigation.
Once I accepted the position of Chief Investigator for a research-based governmental inquiry into racism and discrimination in Sweden, my future life and professional career were forced down that road paved to Hell. I was misrepresented as a trouble maker who “calls gentle Swedes” racists and characterizes the solidarity based Swedish society as a racially biased society. A few days after my appointment as the Chief Investigator, more than 70 Swedish professors and academics led by a leading professor at Gothenburg University wrote a petition to the government and attacked the Minister of Integration for “devaluating the Swedish investigation system” with the appointment of me (Masoud Kamali) as a major governmental investigator. They wrote that “the Swedish governmental investigation system has, prior to Kamali’s appointment, had an excellent scientific quality, which now is at risk of destruction.” In order to defend my scientific and human dignity against such racist attacks, I participated in a debate with the leading professor on Swedish Radio where I said the following:
I received my entire academic training in Sweden and in Swedish universities and if there is any problem with my academic training and my academic merits, the same critics should logically be directed towards the leading professor and other Swedish professors who signed the petition.
The professors did not even take a moment to check where I received my academic education and training. Assuming that my higher education was entirely from Iran and not from Sweden, they accused me of not being as “good an academician” as they (Swedish whites) were.
In an interview when I mentioned the role of and the racist theories of Linneaus for perpetuating racist ideology in Sweden as well as their consequences for institutional discrimination against people with immigrant and/or minority backgrounds, I received a huge number of threatening letters and phone calls telling me to leave the country if I did not like it. I was familiar with such racist attacks whenever I was in the Swedish news media spotlight, but the extent of the attacks after the investigation far exceeded the attacks before I led the investigation.
The attacks, however, did not come only from openly racist groups, but also from academicians, politicians and even the Social Democratic Party, which had appointed me as the investigator. I was supposed to “be kind” to the governing party, the Social Democrats. It was a period of huge pressure on me from different political parties and groups who sought to influence the investigation. Empirical findings from the first report of the investigation that was titled emphasized the need to change the focus of the problems of integration from “the others” to problematical Swedish institutional arrangements and structures. This was what Gunnar Myrdal had suggested for the United States, but not for Sweden. The new Integration Minister, Jens Orback, publicly declared that “I am not sharing Masoud Kamali’s analysis of the problem of integration.” This was followed by many journalists’ and other politicians’ attack on me for “being anti-Swede” and “an immigrant who did not understand the Swedish solidary history.” Though the findings from the governmental investigation were scientific publications written by 130 Swedish experts and international experts in the area, many Swedes, who for many decades presented themselves and their country as champions of democracy and solidarity, did not like my candid reports.
As my leadership of The Governmental Inquiry into Power, Integration, and Structural Discrimination came to an end in 2006, a long campaign of destructive individual and institutional racism against me began. Instead of accepting scientific findings that empirically challenged the essentialist claim of white Swedes and Sweden as the champions of solidarity in the world, powerful people, entities, and institutions scapegoated me as a prime enemy against their imagined Swedish utopia.
Twenty years after the assassination of Olof Palme, it became crystal clear to me that members of the democracy that I once believed in would invest far more energy and resources into denying harsh inequities than becoming the democracy that Palme stood and died for.
(Part one of a three-part essay).
Dr. Masoud Kamali
Uppsala January 2019