Tidbits of Arabic News translated into English

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A politician from Sweden on the Arabic News

I managed to listen to the BBC Arabic for maybe two hours total this past month, and just by luck, I caught an interview with a Swedish politician.

Her name is Abir Al-Sahlani, and she was interviewed by Malak Jaafar in mid-November:

Abir Al-Sahlani

Malak is always a very tough interviewer, so she started out by asking about some corruption charges that Ms. Abir had faced in Sweden. It was a charge she had been cleared of, but it looks like it cost Ms. Abir the chance to run for office during the last election this summer. 

Abir: I was cleared of the charges, but I decided not to run I knew the whole campaign would focus on this one issue, and I didn't want to deal with that.

Malak asked if there had been a conspiracy in the Center Party (to which Ms. Abir belongs) against her, or if they had been split over how to deal with her.

Abir: There's always opposition when you're a politician; and sometimes it's opposition with integrity, and sometimes it's opposition without integrity. I believe I faced opposition without integrity.

Malak: From who?

Abir: From people who did not want me to have a voice in the government, including people within the party. I think I annoy a lot of people inside the party, and in Sweden, and in the Arab world, too.

Malak: does the chief of the Center Party not really care for you?

Malak's sharp eyes don't miss much

Abir: No, I consider the head of the party to be my personal friend, and it's not entirely her decision, anyways. In a country like Sweden, in which there's been no wars for about 300 years, the political system is very structured and organized. Decision-making is not very centrally-controlled. Even lower-level party members have a say, and so do committees. So it's not necessarily the head of the party who decides all things.

Malak: So, what remains of your role in the Center Party? Have you been frozen out?

Abir: Not at all. I am on the Leadership Council for the party, on which there's only 21 members. And I'm the representative in the party for Stockholm.

Malak: But still, you gave in and didn't run for Parliament.

 Ms. Abir thinking about her battles

Abir: Well, I sometimes think: not all battles have to be mine to fight. I'm a person, and I have a certain amount of energy. I need to put that energy into battles where there's a bigger chance I might win.

Malak: And what are your battles?

Abir: Mostly equality between people. I don't like for people to look at me and think: oh, she's weak. Oh, we need to feel sorry for her. Of course, it's true that I met with tragedy as a child. My parents were politicians in Iraq. I attended political meetings while in my mother's womb, and when I was a year and a half old, I was threatened with assassination from my parents' political enemies.

[Iraq, you make me proud every time!]

Abir continues: As a 15-year-old child, I left Iraq all on my own, without family. I came to Sweden, and by the time I was 16, I had taken on the responsibility and succeeded in gathering all my family there. Otherwise, we would never have been able to live all together. But, I want people not just to focus on all this, I want to show that I'm stronger, that I am capable, that I accomplish. I want to break the idea of Middle Eastern women as a pitiful victim.

Then Malak brought up Abir's failed campaign to win a seat in the Iraqi parliament back in 2004. Abir explained: she had spent very little time on the ground in Iraq prior to that. A proper campaign would have been interacting with people and earning their trust. But she did not have a chance to do that, and she cannot expect that people are going to vote for her just because her name is on the ballot.

Then they went into a whole discussion of post-war Iraq in 2003/2004 and what went wrong, and Abir says: maybe Saudi and Iran didn't really want democracy in Iraq, and maybe Turkey and Syria, too, maybe no one wanted democracy to succeed in Iraq, and the Americans made mistakes and ...

But I'm going to skip the rest of that, and pick back up where Malak asks the question you always always have to ask someone who grew up between two different cultures:

Malak: People say that in Iraq, you have become a stranger, having lived for so long apart from the country. And in Sweden, people view you as a refugee. You talk a lot about integration. Do you feel as though wherever you go, you will not be able to properly fit in, whether in Iraq or in Sweden?

Abir: Where should I go, the moon? I am a product of Iraq. I am Iraqi. I am a product of the Middle East. That is the reality. That is our situation. I didn't come from the moon. When I see mothers who send their children to school, only for them to die there from violence, I feel for that mother, whether she is Iraqi or Somali or Tajiki. It doesn't matter. But when we are talking about democracy, this is experience, and it is not an insult to any country, or any religion, or any group of people. I think these are values that all people hold dear. And Inshallah anyone from the outside can come to Iraq and maybe fix our problems, whoever it maybe be, just let the problems get fixed.

Malak: But it's still true that people want to vote for someone who looks like them, and has the same shared experience. So was your path to politics within the Center Party of Sweden driven by just Iraqis living in Sweden who voted for you?

Abir: Not really. There's not a lot of Iraqis in the Center Party. Let me repeat, I stand for liberal values, for democracy, for humanity, and maybe voters, whether they were Swedish or Iraqi, identified with that and that's how I got voted in and that's what I represent.

Then they started talking about integration. I really really really loved what she said at this point, so much, that I would have started shouting, except for I was in the office.

Abir said: When I talk about integration of immigrants in Sweden, I don't mean it in the sense of I have to change culturally. I just mean that I should be a part of Swedish politics, a part of Swedish civil society. It doesn't have anything to do with starting to eat pork, or starting to drink, or wearing skimpy clothes, or naming your kids Karin or Ester, because those things anyways do not really define Swedish society. Swedish society is much richer than that. Swedish society is humanity. It's the equality between man and woman. It's that there's no difference between whether you're white or black or blonde or dark or red. It's that you have a right in this society, and that you can live your life in all its ways, inside of the laws.

More good things about Sweden!

And I (me, not Abir) just want to add that actually, plenty of Muslims drink alcohol; and I always dislike it when we look at the west and say, oh, look how different they are, and what weird customs they have, when the same exact stuff is happening in Arab countries. As for being blonde, I have a cousin who's blonde. There are Arabs who are blonde. Not brilliant sun-shine blonde, but soft honey blonde. And, as for names: I also have a cousin named Cinderella (no joke). And I knew a Muslim Syrian girl here in the US who was named Suzanne. And I met a Muslim girl in Jordan who was named Sally. They both wore hijabs and were very proud Arabs. So even the names don't really mean much anymore. 

I met a Swedish girl in Jordan who was called Karin, and she was so nice, and so sweet, and so open to inviting people over to her place. And she was doing tons of activities with kids. Why shouldn't an Arab or a Muslim called their daughter Karin after the Karin I met in Jordan?

Back to the interview. I think Malak's next question was something like: you are a Muslim woman, and the Swedish Center Party was just using you as a face to prove that they were welcoming of immigrants, but otherwise, they don't really get any use out of you.

Malak and her piercing eyes

Abir said: no, I don't let anyone to use me in any way. I act for myself. I have Swedish voters who vote for me. In the 2009 elections for the European Parliament I received over 7000 votes just for me, Abir, not for the Center Party. Of course, I am Iraqi, and Arab, and Muslim, and all of that; I am not ashamed of being an immigrant. But first and foremost, I am Abir.

Malak: Tell me about the second generation Muslims growing up in Europe and who are going to fight with Da-esh (or ISIS) in Iraq and Syria.

Abir: I think those kids are lacking in identity, both inside society and inside their families. I think that a lot of those kids probably have had to take on the roles of parenting their parents. By leaving Europe, these kids gave up democracy, freedom, and respect. I think a lot of them were searching for an identity, and they went to mosques to find this identity, and some of those mosques likely have extremist views.

Malak: You know, a lot of those kids don't even think that their home countries in Europe are democratic or free.

Abir: Sure, when I talk about integration, I don't just talk about what immigrants have to do, but I also ask for governments and countries to open up space and room for these immigrants. People have to realize that tax-paying and law-abiding people are not just white. In fact, tax-paying and law-abiding people might look just like me. Or it might be a lady wearing a hijab or a man with a beard wearing a dishdasha. All of those people might follow the law, too. Most of us are like that.

Abir lays out her points

Malak: On to a new topic. In western countries, there's a very bad image of Islam these days. Why can't people like you, who are in politics and have a voice, try to change this picture?

Abir: Really, I have tried to promote dialogue about Islam. We are lacking this. Everyone has their own opinion and has an opinion, and is quick to accuse others of things. I asked the Islamic leaders in Sweden to clarify their positions regarding Da-esh, or ISIS, in Syria and Iraq. They're the leaders, so why not give their clear positions. I experienced a very negative response. They said: why do we Muslims always have to clarify our positions every time something happens? So I think there's two issues. One is, we Muslims always find ourselves accused of things, and that is hard to deal with. Secondly, I don't think they have a good idea of what it means to be a leader. If you are a leader, then you have a responsibility. I gave them an example. I told them that as immigrants, you want all the political parties in Sweden to say that we are not going to be against immigrants. You want them all to be very clear about what their position is. This principle applies just the same way to you. You are leaders, so you have to state your positions. 

Another thing: Muslims in the west always feel accused and oppressed. Why? How can we solve that problem? I said: why can't we Muslims in Sweden decide on a Swedish Islam? Could we decide what is right and what would work best for us? I didn't suggest that we should become very different. But I was told: no, we can't do this. But why? To me, this is crucial. 

Malak: Do you think that there should be a British Islam and French Islam and a Swedish Islam?

Abir: I don't mean that precisely. I just mean that we should have more than just a single school of Islam, which right now is the Wahabi school setting the standards. We should have a dialogue about these things.

Malak: In Swedish mosques, do you sense that there are certain people bankrolling the building and running of the mosques, and that the views of those people end up being promoted.

Abir: I can tell you one thing at least: I used to go to Friday prayers in the biggest mosque in Sweden. They would always say: pray for the martyrs in Gaza. But when it comes to Iraq, they never said pray for the martyrs in Iraq. They would just say: Iraqis are killing each other. Why in Gaza are they martyrs, and why in Iraq are they not?

Malak: And what do you think the reason for that is?

Abir: Sectarianism. (By which I think she means the big Shia-Sunni fight.)

And thus ended a Swedish politician's turn on the BBC Arabic. How exciting! You can watch the full interview by clicking here (it will take you to the video on the BBC Arabic's YouTube page.)

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