At a rally in Florida earlier this year, President Trump told his supporters that Sweden was attacked by terrorists due to its soft approach to migration. The statement baffled Swedes, who were unaware of any such attack, and former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt refuted the claim in a tweet: “Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking?”

Both Trump and Bildt’s statements speak volumes about the near-universally acknowledged perception of Sweden: peaceful, harmless, open and tolerant. On the one hand, Bildt’s tweet disproves a groundless claim, but on the other hand affirms his country’s national image in positive terms – Sweden, the defender of human rights and liberal values.

In practice, the public attitude towards refugees has hardened. Stricter asylum laws and migration policies – as well as gruelling reports of arson attacks on housing centres for asylum seekers – have formed part of the political landscape since late 2015. The country’s national identity as a champion of humanitarian values are at stake.

Between 28th September to 1st October 2017, Scandinavia’s largest cultural event, the Göteborg Book Fair (Bokmässan), took place in Sweden. The fair is a demonstration and celebration of literature and culture, priding itself as an event embracing a diversity of ideas and opinions. In the past the fair has hosted several Nobel Prize Laurates including Wole Soyinka, Doris Lessing, Desmond Tutu and Mario Vargas Llosa.

Yet discussions around this year’s fair were not about high profile writers and thinkers, but the presence of the far-right newspaper Nya Tider. On their website, Nya Tider describe themselves as the only Swedish newspaper that challenges the lies of the established press. In practice, they dilute daily news with xenophobic, Islamophobic, and occasionally anti-Semitic sentiments.

The book fair’s decision to allow Nya Tider to be present at this year’s fair induced a series of debates and threats of boycott from writers and other cultural producers. In May 2017, over 200 writers and translators announced in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that they would not participate in this year’s fair.

The intensity of the debate and protests against Nya Tider must be understood not only against the symbolic meaning of the fair for the public, but also the country’s self-perception as a progressive liberal democracy. Though the fair is privately organized, it has become a public gathering for the culturally interested general public. Moreover, as a public programme, it continuously reflects and reproduces the norms and values of the Swedish community, with themes such as freedom of expression and “Bildung and cultivation” – this year’s theme.

The fair’s organizers appeal to democratic values defending their decision to allow Nya Tider to participate in the fair. They explain in a press statement that freedom of expression is the core value of the fair; to maintain and promote democracy, freedom of expression must remain unnegotiable. The debate among the general public about the fair follows a similar logic.

On both sides of the debate – supporting or condemning Nya Tiders’ participation – most agree that anti-democratic forces pose a threat to Swedish values of democracy and tolerance. But it is freedom of expression which has become the main cause of division. Uncontested freedom of expression makes Sweden a progressive country, and follows the Swedish Fundamental Law. And to resist far-right forces is an equally valued national norm. The dilemma in the debate is how to protect the liberal value that guarantees citizens’ the right to express their ideas, opinions and thoughts – without undermining democracy or Sweden’s national image.

But the debate invokes other democratic questions beyond the issue of freedom of expression. Swedish writer and journalist Kawa Zolfagary argued in an article that in the debate democracy is approached as an objective concept and with naivety. He argues that there is an expectation from the mainstream media and general public that anti-democratic forces will absorb democratic values as society openly debates freedom of expression. Zolfagary continues, “This is an idea that takes democracy as something passive, a kind of fog resting over the country and inevitably infects everyone in it.” Moreover, the debate shines a light on how liberal states practically balance core values of liberalism: maintaining an open society while protecting minority rights.

The reality is that certain groups in society are at more risk of the violence of prejudice and discrimination than others. The increased presence of anti-democratic and xenophobic forces in public spaces come at the risk of minority rights and safety, both physical and emotional. And the United Nation’s Human Rights Council have repeatedly criticized the Swedish government for not sufficiently combating hate crimes against Muslims, Roma and other ethnic groups.

The book fair controversy forms part of the increased public visibility of anti-democratic, nationalistic and populistic forces in Sweden. The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, elected to parliament in 2010, are now the second largest party in the polls. The Nordic Resistance Movement gained a permit to organize a neo-Nazi march during the country’s largest political event, Almedalsveckan, and again in Gothenburg on the 30th September 2017 – during the weekend of the book fair.

The presence of forces such as Nya Tider and the Nordic Resistance Movement in public arenas will not cease due to public debates on liberal values. The balance of ideals such as freedom of expression and protection of minorities are not always practically possible. Eventually, sacrifices will need to be made. In the wake of the neo-Nazi marches, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven wants to discuss with the other political parties (except the Sweden Democrats) the defence of freedom of expression from forces not interested in its safeguard. Perhaps this will be the start of a national discussion on freedom of expression, different from the one currently keeping the country at a loss.

About the author

Jonelle Twum is a freelance writer with a regional focus on Sub-Saharan Africa and Scandinavia.