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World

Swedish School Attack Highlights Rise In Anti-Immigrant Violence

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sweden is a contradictory place. It takes in more migrants per capita than any other European country. At the same time, anti-immigrant violence is growing. When I visited Stockholm in January, arsonists were setting fire to mosques. The head of the Islamic Association of Sweden told me he had never been so afraid.

OMAR MUSTAFA: Every time I wake up, I'm very afraid to check my telephone to see that something happened during the night.

SHAPIRO: That's Omar Mustafa. Since that interview, tens of thousands of people have come to Sweden from Syria, Somalia and other countries. The backlash is growing. Now there has been a string of arson attacks on asylum centers. And at a school last week, a man stabbed four people with a sword. Police say he chose his victims based on their skin color. We decided to check back in with Omar Mustafa of Sweden's Islamic Association. And it's good to talk to you again. Thank you for joining us.

MUSTAFA: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: Well, you told me when we met at your office in January that things were worse than they had ever been before. How would you describe the situation now?

MUSTAFA: You know you have the - both parts. You have the racist movement. They are actually stronger right now. It's more scary because they are very active and we have the good forces now speaking up. They are organizing themselves. We've seen a lot of positive actions in Sweden, welcoming the refugees, and taking actions against the racist movements. So it's a polarization in the Swedish society.

SHAPIRO: A far-right party called the Sweden Democrats has grown tremendously in popularity in the last year. Polls show it's now the leading party in Sweden. Do you think the country's identity as a country that welcomes strangers is changing?

MUSTAFA: No because the far-right represent maybe maximum 20 percent. And what we see now is that the majority of the Swedes are actually more positive to refugees now. They understand that we need to help people in need. We have seen a lot of reports about Sweden actually needing those refugees. We have older population right now and we are in desperate need for new labor forces. We have a problem in Sweden, but the problem is not the refugees. The problem is the racist movement. And more people are knowing that now.

SHAPIRO: You say Sweden needs more people to augment the workforce. But there was a line in a recent Washington Post article that stood out to me which said a family that may have been given an apartment in trendy Stockholm, had they arrived a year ago, could today end up bussed to a remote village north of the Arctic Circle or housed in a converted prison cell. To me, that sounds like Sweden's capacity to take people in really has been stretched too far.

MUSTAFA: The capacity's actually not the problem. We are still one of the richest countries in Europe. We should do better than countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. And I've seen the last weeks that the Swedes are welcoming refugees at their homes.

SHAPIRO: And yet Sweden's government has said it will put new limits in place on the number of migrants and refugees that Sweden takes an. That suggests that something is changing.

MUSTAFA: Yeah, and it was a very bad signal from the Swedish government with this new statement. I hope they will change it because we have a smaller part of the society who's against more refugees. We have a further smaller part who is acting on hate crimes, and we have seen a wave of terror against accommodations for asylum-seekers and the last attack on the school. So of course we have a problem, but the problem for me is the racist movement, not the refugees.

SHAPIRO: That's Omar Mustafa, president of the Islamic Association of Sweden, speaking with us from his office in Stockholm. Very good to talk to you again, thank you.

MUSTAFA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.