Finland & Cultural Diversity 2013

by , under Enrique Tessieri

Compared with the previous two years, 2013 will be remembered as business as usual on the intolerance front. A positive sign, however, is the reaction of some of the Finnish media to racism. Even so, the media in this country continues to give some racists inflated respectability and importance by spreading their prejudice.   

The reaction of the media to intolerance in Finland not only reveals that there is racism in this society, but a lot of it since it is being exposed more boldly than before.

Hats go off in November to Lieksan Lehti editor-in-chief Marja Mölsä, who published a story of a city councilman of the Perussuomalaiset (PS) party who said he doesn’t want his group to meet in the same room where Somalis hold their meetings. What the councilman said is disgraceful and unacceptable, but saying it as if it were the most normal thing in a room full of other people is what is so surprising and revealing.

While it still is apparently “normal” to make racist comments with impunity with colleagues and friends, we need to stand up, like Mölsä did, and expose the ogre like Dracula to deadly sunlight. This is exactly what happened in many parts of the United States after the Civil Rights Movement. Racist behavior changed from normal to shameful.

Even if there are encouraging signs that the Finnish media is reporting more discrimination and racism cases, a good example of how things should be done was when BBC’s Stephen Sackur of HARDtalk pinned PS chairman Timo Soini on racism in his party.  One reason why the Finnish media has treated the PS with understanding is because it is white and because racism doesn’t affect its journalists and most of its readers. 

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BBC teaches the Finnish media how to challenge Soini on racism.  Are Finnish journalists accustomed to making hard questions? If it isn’t common, it should be. See interview here.

The year saw many setbacks to cultural diversity. Some of these were the anti-gay marriage vote by MPs,  death threats against researchers and Swedish speaking Finnish journalists and public figures, landmark turban case of Sikh bus driver Gill Sukhdarsha Singh, and rising anti-immigration, anti-Semitism anti-Roma sentiment in Finland and Europe.

One very interesting case that we have been watching with keen interest is that of Sikh bus driver Sukhdarshan Singh, who is still struggling with his employer to have the right to wear a turban at work. This case is a watershed in this country since it addresses the heart of the issue of intolerance and how to move forward: accepting cultural diversity and people who are different from the majority.

Finland’s overall grade* for promoting and defending cultural diversity was between +5 and -6 in 2013 versus +5 in the previous year. Five of the eight members of the Migrant Tales editorial board had mixed feeling about the final grade: three gave the country a 7, while two gave it  a 5 and 4. An average score on cultural diversity is a modest result.

* The  grade given to Finland shows how the majority of Migrant Tales’ editorial board sees how well the country is promoting and defending cultural diversity.  Grading scale: 10 (excellent), 9-8 (very good), 7-6 (average), 5-4 (below average), and 3 (fail).

First quarter (January-March)

Umayya Abu Hanna’s opinion piece published in the end of December on Helsingin Sanomat,  Finland’s largest daily, which was expanded by Mikko Koponen on Migrant Tales, evidently touched a raw nerve. Like many well-written pieces about intolerance in our society, the story behind the story of Abu Hanna’s opinion piece was the reaction to it.

Apart from tabloid Ilta-Sanomat editor Ulla Appelsin, who took the story personally and tried to show how ungrateful Palestinian-born Abu Hanna was for all that she had got in Finland, others like Anu Uhtio, chairwoman of The Adoptive Families in Finland association, tried to play down her personal view of how racism had affected her life and that of her adopted daughter. Throughout the year, Migrant Tales has published a number of stories that have been widely. All of them have been on the topic of racism.

The top 5 posts on Migrant Tales in 2013 were:

By far the most popular posting by Migrant Tales ever is “Are you a victim of racism in Finland?” It was published in June 2007 and has attracted over 1,500 comments and over 24,600 visits.

Taking into account how the Finnish media fell for the racist discourse of some PS and other mainstream party politicians before the April 2011 elections, it is a positive matter that dissenting voices are emerging thanks to women like Abu Hanna, Maryan Abdulkarim and Fadumo Dayib.  

Despite such positive signs and voices, the atmosphere in Finland is still negative especially towards some immigrant groups never mind cultural diversity in general. A clear sign that matters are moving in the wrong direction was when Kansalinen Vastarinta, a neo-Nazi group,  barged in a book presentation far-right extremism in the end of January in the central Finnish city of Jyväskylä.

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Researchers of the University of Eastern Finland who study racism and multiculturalism voiced concern over threats they have received. Read full story here.

Another distressing news story that was published in February came from researchers at the University of Eastern Finland, who had received death threats and hate mail. Antero Puhakala of the Negotiation Organization for Public Sector Professionals was quoted as saying on YLE in English:

“Our researchers into racism and multiculturalism have been subjected to threats.  Anonymous threatening letters have been posted to their homes and researchers have faced abuse on Facebook. Complaints regarding the activities of researchers and teachers have been filed with the vice-chancellor or to a higher authority.” 

Certainly we shouldn’t be intimidated by such threats because that is exactly what such people, anonymously, want you to do. Even if such threats are disturbing, they should embolden us to be more outspoken on a social ill like racism. Moreover, can you ever “debate” with such people who are so disrespectful of  your right to express yourself?  Can we and should we debate why group x should have less rights in our society? Shouldn’t we be debating the opposite,  or equal rights for all members of our society?

Migrant Tales reported in March about a black train cleaner working for the state-owned railways company, VR, who was violently attacked by two men in the northern Finnish city of Kajaani.

Another story that was reported from the city of Vaasa was about city councilman Risto Helin, who got off with a warning from the PS for giving a Hitler clock as a present to a neo-Nazi club in that city. Helin wasn’t sacked from the party.

Second quarter (April-June)

While some of the members of Migrant Tales‘ editorial board felt that PS MP James Hirvisaari’s expulsion from the party in October was the biggest news on the cultural diversity front (see third quarter below), two important events that should be mentioned are Ali and Husu’s radio show on YLE that kicked off in January, and a landmark turban case.

Sikh bus driver,  Gill Sukhdarshan Singh, has challenged his employer, Veolia Transport Vantaa, which still prohibits him from using a turban at work despite two recommendations by the the Southern Finland Regional State Administrative Agency (Avi), which saw the ban as discriminatory.

According to Sukhdashan Singh, the employer didn’t tell him directly whether he would be allowed to use the turban at work or not from the end of September, the deadline imposed by Avi to resolve the dispute. The Sikh busman announced in December that he will take the matter with the AKT transport union to court in February.

As many other cases in this country, this one in particular is important since a positive decision would promote cultural diversity at the work place.

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The adverse atmosphere for some immigrants in Finland was not only evident at the PS’ annual conference in Joensuu this June, but at the home of Abdirahim “Husu” Husssein, a Center Party politician who hosts the Ali and Husu talk show. 

“This is the third time it’s happened [attacked my home] and there seems to be a pattern,” he told Migrant Tales. “Somebody wrote ‘Binladen was here’ on our door, the second time there was a drawing on my children’s bedroom window of a bomb that blew up and now this.”

The European Commission and other anti-racist groups are watching Finland. Concern for hate mail and death threats to Swedish-language journalists and public figures in this country was voiced by European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes, who cited Migrant Tales as a source.

Kroes wrote that death threats are unacceptable in any democratic society. “But in this case, there is also a particular threat to freedom of speech [in Finland], and to our cultural and linguistic diversity,” she wrote.

As a sign of recognition for the work that we do at Migrant Tales, we participated in April in a German Broadcasting Company program on hate speech. Our stories have been cited and picked up by Sveriges Radio, YLE’s Suora linja, UNHCR in Greece,  Time Magazine and many thers. The BBC and TV4 of Russia have gotten in touch with Migrant Tales as well.

As our popularity as a forum has grown from our humble beginnings, which they still are, so have the attacks by those who want to silence and discredit us. The stronger such Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma and anti-cultural diversity groups become, the stronger Migrant Tales becomes. We don’t receive any financial support from anyone and are true to our main goal: Aiming to be a voice for those whose views and situation are understood poorly and heard faintly by the media, politicians and public.

Why does Migrant Tales exist? Because Finland is our home and because we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in a country where intolerance is the exception, not the rule.

We have never hidden our criticism of anti-immigration parties in Europe and Finland. And we don’t plan to budge on this important issue since giving in to their intolerance would be the same like digging our own graves and accepting that we are  second- and third-class citizens.

A good video published on International Migrants Day (December 18) stated what we’ve been saying all along: “When the rights of others are denied, the rights of citizens are at risk.”

Apart from some stateless persons having a difficult time opening a bank account in Finland, never mind getting access to online banking, EU citizens are discriminated as well when trying to get a mobile phone line or life insurance. For example,  Nordea requires immigrants to have five years residency in a Nordic country and speak fluently Finnish or Swedish in order to be eligible for life insurance.

The Ombudsman for Minorities responded to Migrant Tales about such issues and how it planned to resolve them. If an immigrant or visible minority believes that he or she is being treated unfairly by the authorities or a company, it’s important that he or she gets in touch with the Ombudsman for Minorities.

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The only way that intolerance can be challenged in a country like Finland is tireless work exposing the social ill and, importantly, finding proactive solutions.

Never losing an opportunity to take a swipe at immigrants and visible minorities in this country, PS MP Vesa-Matti Saarakkala commented in June about the riots in Husby, Sweden.  He  suggested that immigrants with “behavior disorders” should be interned for a half a year at a camp to learn how to behave in our society.

Apart from the media labeling the rioters as “immigrants,” reveals a lot about the present state of social exclusion in Sweden and how some in that country see second-generation Swedes as “foreigners.” Social exclusion was one of the factors that sparked the riots in Sweden, according to Racism Review.

The European  Network Against Racism (ENAR) said in a statement that it condemned the violence used by rioters but blamed the ongoing  institutional violence of successive Swedish governments, which have chosen not to address the deep-rooted causes of exclusion plaguing Swedish society today.

While some MPs like Arto Satonen of the National Coalition Party gave some suggestions on how to avoid the same types of riots in Finland, Abdirahim Hussein said that the same could happen in this country in 10-15 years if we commit the same mistakes.

Migrant Tales agrees with Hussein. Not enough is being done to promote social inclusion. We are sowing the seeds of our social problems today.

A good piece of news published in the second quarter was about the record number of immigrants who had become Finnish citizens in 2012, rising by 4,530 to 9,090, according to Statistics Finland. Ricky Ghansah showed us as well how kindness can go a long way to humble a racist on a bus.

Third quarter (July-September)

By far the three most important stories that had an impact on immigrants and cultural diversity in Finland during the third quarter were the plight of a group of Thai berry pickers,  a promise by  Magneettimedia, a publication that advertises Kärkkäinen department store products, would stop publishing anti-Semitic writings by the likes of David Duke, and  Council of Europe concern over ethnic profiling by the Finnish police. 

Other news that had a negative impact on cultural diversity were the elections in Norway in September that gave the right-wing populist anti-immigration Progress Party (FrP) the opportunity to form part of the country’s new minority government with the Conservative Party (Høyre). What happened in Norway could well be the scenario in Finland after the 2015 parliamentary elections.

While matters will not change radically in Norway due to the FrP, the worst that can happen is tightening of immigration policy and a negative political stalemate on how to move forward on the cultural diversity front. The FrP in Norway, like the PS in Finland today, are sending a negative message to their countrymen about immigrants and visible minorities by denying such groups equal acceptance and respect.

FrP, which will be in government for the first time after it was founded in 1973, had as a temporary member mass killer Anders Breivik.

In the Nordic region, FrP is in the same anti-immigration league as the Danish People’s Party, Sweden Democrats and PS. All of these parties are united in the following manner: They are anti-EU, anti-immigration and especially anti-Islam. All use the same rhetoric to hide their loathing for immigrants and cultural diversity in order to appear more mainstream. FrP head Siv Jensen, for example, said in an  interview with  The Local  was that she was against Norwegian immigration policy, not immigrants. As any critical observer can appreciate, such a claim by Jensen is a red herring.

An article by Helsingin Sanomat in September showed that Thai berry pickers, who pay for their plane tickets, insurance and lodging while in Finland, make a mere 2,40 euros an hour. Facing losses and a poor berry harvest, some fifty berry pickers decided to fight for their rights and demand better working condition and security from  their employer, Ber-Ex.

It is unclear how the whole matter was resolved and if any improvements will be made offer greater job security to foreign berry pickers. Poor working rights is mainly a result of poor legislation and lack of regulation by the authorities and unions. This has been an ongoing problem in Finland for decades.

Juha Kärkkäinen, the owner of the department stores that carry his surname, announced in early August that he will stop publishing anti-Semitic opinion pieces on Magneettimedia, reported Helsingin Sanomat.

Numerous anti-Semitic articles have been published in previous issues of Magneettimedia. These include:

  • The Jews Who Control the Media
  • Who Owns the Media in 2012?
  • A Great Video Shows What a Cheat Albert Einstein Really Was!
  • Zionist Terrorism in Norway
  • CNN, Goldman Sachs and Zionist Control
  • How to Break Down and Dominate the Zionists

The last two writings were written by former Ku Klux Klan wizard, Duke.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center – Europe expressed concern in a letter to President Sauli Niinistö about the columns that appeared in the publication. Magneettimedia editor and owner Kärkkäinen was fined in October by a Finnish court 45,000 euros for publishing the anti-Semitic writings.

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Read full story (in Finnish) here.  What is surprising that these anti-Semitic writings can be still read online.

While Kärkkäinen may blame “international Jewish conspiracy” for his company’s financial woes, the anti-Semitic writings are a clear example of how Finland’s intolerance for cultural diversity has grown together with anti-immigration and anti-Islam sentiment.

In the face of repeated denials by the Finnish police and Interior Minister Päivi Räsänen, the Council of Europe’s anti-racism body,  European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), expressed as well concern in a report that Finnish police ask people’s ID based on ethnic appearance. 

The fact that the police and Christian Democrat interior minister deny any wrongdoing concerning ethnic profiling in Finland is highly revealing in itself. Such denials suggest that the contrary takes place and that it is a much wider problem than the authorities want to admit.

The police and the interior minister are, however, adamant: No ethnic profiling goes on in Finland by the police.  In the face of such denials, however, the Ombudsman for Minorities has been in negotiations with the police to have in force this year new anti-ethnic profiling guidelines.

Finland’s Muslim community suffered a new act of hostility by PS MP Teuvo Hakkarainen, who claimed in a blog entry in August that the West is being flooded by millions of Muslims and that there are extremists in Turku ready to declare a holy war against Finland.

Hakkarainen is one of many PS politicians who has built his political career by spreading racism. Apart from using the n-word before, he recommended over two years ago that homosexuals, lesbians and Somalis should be relocated to the Åland Islands.

One of the reasons why intolerance has shown itself with such strength in Finland is because there is wide acceptance of this type of anti-social behavior, which manifests itself as institutional racism as well. An internal report, which was obtained and published by MTV3 in August,  revealed that the Helsinki Court of Appeal judges used derogatory labels for black (n-word), Russians, Jews and gays as well as sexually harassed women at parties.

Despite what the report revealed about the judges, no new stories were published about what steps the ministry of justice took to tackle this type of behavior at the Helsinki Court of Appeal.

There are many ways to skin a racist cat. Just like how Ghansah humbled a racist with his kindness, Abde Hussein wrote on his Facebook wall on September 26 his encounter with a racist on the Helsinki metro. The racist, who accused Hussein of living off unemployment and welfare, was the one who was out of work and living off state handouts. His story on his Facebook wall attracted 10,200 likes, 423 comments and 1,643 shares.

Fourth quarter (October-December)

In the face of former PS MP James Hirvisaari’s ever-erratic behavior in the summer, tweeting in July that a journalist “masturbated wildly” during a telephone interview, Migrant Tales asked back then when he’d be sacked from the party.

About two months later in early October that is exactly what happened: Hirvisaari got expelled from the PS after inviting far-right activist Seppo Lehto to parliament, where he took a picture of him making a Nazi salute. This was the last straw for PS chairman Soini, who was quoted as saying on MTV3 that Hirvisaari would be sacked from the party.

While this was the least that Soini could do, the PS leader attempted to use Hirvisaari as a scapegoat for the PS’ racism issues. Even if Hirvisaari is now the lone member of the far-right Muutos 2011 party in parliament, business is back to normal at the PS.

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 The picture of Lehto was taken and distributed on social media by Hirvisaari.

Around mid-November, however, another racism scandal broke out in the city of Lieksa, which has been in the national spotlight for some time due to the problems it has had with Somali immigrants.

Esko Saastamoinen, the PS councilperson from Lieksa, brought the city back into the national news when he asked for a ”Somali-free” meeting room for his group. As a result of what Saastamoinen said, the PS councilperson was sacked as the party’s city council leader but wasn’t required to resign from the party. He was allowed to keep his post as the city’s board first vice president as well, according to Karjalainen, a Joensuu-based daily.

If the Lieksa affair didn’t bring more notoriety to the PS on the racism front, one of its MPs, Olli Immonen, announced a month later in December that he had given parliament a written question that Finland should start registering people according to their ethnic background. Certainly the question we should ask Immonen is why he wants to classify people by ethnic origin in the first place and if there is any use for such a register.  What is most surprising about the whole affair is Soini’s silence.

Other news that hit the fan in the last quarter of the year was PS MP Jussi Halla-aho’s appointment as deputy member of the Finnish delegation of the Council of Europe. The controversial nomination of Halla-aho, who was sentenced for ethnic agitation and breaching the sanctity of religion, prompted the parliamentary leaders of seven parties to express regret in a joint statement for the appointment.  

Apart from stiff campaigning by Halla-aho and Saarakkala to stop Finland from accepting Syrian refugees, the PS has succeeded in limiting the number of  municipalities in accepting even  quota refugees. Our country has pledged to accept 500 refugees from Syria, while our neighbor, Sweden, has already granted 16,000 residence permits to refugees from the war-ravaged country.

Suspected hate crimes in 2012 totaled 732, which is a 20.6% fall from 918 cases in the previous year, according to YLE in English. Of the total hate crimes reported to the police last year, 641 cases were classified as racist. Despite the sharp fall from 2012,  there weren’t any officials celebrating how hate hate crime have fallen sharply in this country.  

Tarja Mankkinen, internal security secretariat head, admitted in November that many racist crimes in Finland go unreported. Thus the lower number of hate crimes reported to the police could reveal mistrust and ignorance that immigrants and visible minorities have of the police and their rights.

Migrant Tales has written in the past how difficult it is to report a  a hate crime to the police.

One of the strangest stories that revealed that racism is alive and kicking in Europe was media interest in a white Roma girl in Greece. The case shed light on the plight of immigrants and visible minorities in Europe, because it showed how much we pay attention to skin color and ethnicity. The Finnish police exposed another stereotype  in summer that had been relentlessly used by politicians and the media to justify intolerance against the Roma. The police concluded that the Roma that come to beg in Finland aren’t victims of human trafficking or linked to organized crime.

A very good documentary on Silminnäkijä  (Eyewitness) by Sam Kinglsey revealed how much ethnic background makes a difference in Finland when trying to look for a job, get housing or enter a night club.

While these types of investigative reporting are important and necessary, their findings aren’t surprising. What is odd, however, is that rarely Finland’s 10,000-strong Romany minority community is asked about discrimination in this country. It’s as if we’re asking the same question over and over again about intolerance hoping not to get the answer we expect and know. Most importantly, we don’t have to challenge this problem in earnest.

Even if there are more voices than before in Finland that are standing up against intolerance, like a march in December where 150-200 people gathered in Helsinki to protest against racism, far-right and neo-Nazi extremists that attacked an anti-racist demonstration in Stockholm, more of these are needed.

We need more voices to speak out against racism.