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Video: Sweden's immigration policies drive nation to a crossroad

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updated 2/23/2011 5:56:24 AM ET 2011-02-23T10:56:24

The bullet exploded through the mosque's window, sending glass splinters hurtling into the office worker's neck.

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Frantically abandoning their New Year's Eve chatter and coffee cups, worshippers rushed to the bloodied victim's aid. The bullet had missed his head by inches; the sniper's target would survive.

Police allege the shooting at Malmo's Islamic center — Sweden's largest mosque — was not random. Investigators say it was one of ten attempted murders and at least one killing perpetrated by a gunman whose objective was to "shoot at immigrants."

The apparent bid to kill a Muslim in a place of worship provoked much soul-searching in Sweden, long regarded as one of Europe's most liberal and welcoming societies.

But only nine months later, hundreds of thousands would cast ballots for the far-right Sweden Democrats . With its roots in the neo-Nazi movement, the party warned of "the dangers of Islamization" and ran a controversial campaign ad showing a gang of burqa-clad women overtaking a senior citizen in a race for benefits.

The election result grabbed headlines across Europe. "Anti-immigration party formed from skinhead movement seizes balance of power in Sweden" was the take of Britain's Daily Mail. Germany's Der Spiegel magazine noted that the showing had "shocked a world so used to viewing Sweden as an open-doored bastion of tolerance."

Many stunned Swedes took to the streets to express dismay that an anti-immigrant backlash sweeping across the continent had reached their shores.

'Taking over'
The Sweden Democrats' success was another sign that a mix of immigration, economic woes and the threat of Islamist extremism has swirled into a perfect storm of problems in Europe.

Story: Islamists raise fears of violent 'clash of cultures' in Europe

Far-right parties in Austria, Britain, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland have all made significant gains in recent years.

Some have pushed for caps on immigration. Other measures – such as France's ban on face veils and Switzerland’s moratorium on minaret construction – have directly affected Muslims.

And the reverberations of radical Islam have been felt widely with security services thwarting many terrorist plots on the continent since 9/11. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and controversy over Muhammad cartoons have made some Muslims feel the West is at war with Islam.

"We can't deny that today Islam is regarded as the biggest threat to Europe for many Europeans," said Professor Anne Sofie Roald of Malmo University's Department of International Migration and Ethnic Relations. "People are perceiving it as a threat because they feel that the minority is growing."

It's then that the symbols, such as minarets and veils, become important, she said.

"It always comes back to that people are afraid of Muslims taking over their countries."

An Iraqi-born bomber who blew himself up before he could set off several devices along a busy Stockholm street before Christmas damaged relations further.

Video: 'Blinking red': Europe faces terrorism risks (on this page)

However, the Sweden Democrats' upward trajectory began long before the botched attack.

About a decade after its birth, the party earned fewer than 20,000 votes — less than half a percent of the ballots cast — at the 1998 national elections.

But under fresh-faced leader Jimmie Akesson, the Sweden Democrats' enthusiastic support for the cradle-to-grave welfare state — reinforced by a message of nationalistic pride and a vow to dramatically reduce immigration — struck a chord.

In September, the Sweden Democrats captured nearly 340,000 votes (about six percent of the total) and claimed 20 seats in 349-member parliament — helping to prevent any party from being able to govern on its own. They were not invited to join the ruling coalition.

The 31-year-old Akesson and his colleagues received a frosty welcome when they moved into the Riksdag — with other lawmakers refusing to even share a photocopier with them.

At the party's waterside offices in Stockholm, Akesson told msnbc.com that he believes that his country is under siege due to an "extreme immigration policy."

Surrounded by leftover campaign posters, a Swedish flag and a banner emblazoned with the party's "Security and Tradition" motto, Akesson says the government should focus its resources on upholding the welfare system.

Video: What does it mean to be Swedish? (on this page)

He alleges that many immigrants live in "parallel societies" – segregated neighborhoods where they speak their native languages and often only socialize with each other.

"They will never become a part of the Swedish society," Akesson said. "We have to make them Swedes, and they must want to be Swedes. Then I think we can have a future together."

An estimated 44 million Muslims live in Europe – about six percent of the continent's total population — and the figure is expected to grow to 58 million by 2030, according to The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

This growth has sparked fears and a backlash across Europe:

  • A poll released in December indicated that only about one third of Germans hold positive views of Muslims.
  • France – home to an estimated 4.7 million Muslims — last year banned the wearing of face veils in public .
  • In 2009, Swiss voters backed a ban on new minarets being built at mosques.
  • Earlier this month, about 2,000 supporters of the extremist English Defence League held a rally in Luton, north of London. The group says its focus is countering radical Islam, but banners reading "No more mosques" were visible at the protest. Past demonstrations have erupted into violence.
  • And during last year's election campaign, Akesson wrote an op-ed in which he promised to combat the "dangers" of Islam, which he labeled Sweden's "greatest external threat since World War II."
Story: Demystifying Islam in a strained Britain

In Malmo, about one-third of the city's almost 300,000 residents were born abroad. Although Denmark lies a mere 10 miles away across the hulking Oresund Bridge, there are more Iraqis living there than Danes.

People from 174 countries call Sweden's third-largest city home – including substantial Bosnian, Serb, Polish, Lebanese, Iranian, Afghan, Pakistani and Somali communities.

Malmo's Islamic center serves a 60,000-strong Muslim community, including people who speak 120 different languages.

Bejzat Becirov, the mosque's founder and chief executive, remains shocked by the Dec. 31, 2009, shooting through the window that wounded his colleague. The victim had been sitting at a desk when the sniper took aim and fired. Shards of glass were removed from his neck.

"He could have been hit if that pot wouldn't have been there," Becirov said, motioning toward the window sill where a heavy terracotta planter sits, palm fronds fanning out from its center.

The bullet was found lodged in a wooden cabinet. The office worker was treated at a hospital and later released.

Police arrested Peter Mangs, 38, in connection with the mosque shooting, part of a series of attacks in Malmo that started with the October 2009 murder of a 20-year-old woman. She was shot as she sat in a car with a male friend of an immigrant background. He was also seriously injured.

Mangs denies any involvement in the shooting spree. However, his father told reporters in November that his son "lived in fear of immigrants taking over Swedish society." Police in Malmo told msnbc.com that they are still investigating the motive behind the attacks. Mangs remains in custody.

Fortress of tolerance
The victim of the mosque shooting has since returned to his native Albania "and he doesn’t want to come back," Becirov added.

The attack was an affront to Becirov, who had during the past three decades strived to build a fortress of tolerance.

"It is supposed to be – and it is – an open mosque, open to everybody, not just Muslims and believers, but to everybody for just that policy: to make people come together and see that we are equals. And that's the way it's working.

"We often get the comment that this is the way you wish it would be everywhere," said the 69-year-old Becirov, who fled Communist Yugoslavia by breaking away from a student trip to Sweden in 1962. "That people can go into a mosque, or go into a church to pray no matter what religion you come from, and to work together for the common good."

An imam at the center works regularly with the Christian community, an event with the Jewish community is in the works and the site has hosted the head of Norway's far-right political party, Becirov said. The mosque's founder conceded that they might have disagreed on a few things, but insisted they were able to have a fruitful discussion.

Becirov says Malmo's Islamic center was established as "a Swedish mosque" and that the language is key to uniting people born in the country and immigrants.

It's impossible not to notice how many archetypal blond-haired, blue-eyed Swedes work there. Seventy percent of its 70-person staff are non-Muslim, Becirov said. His translator for the day – Cecilia Hallstrom, who doubles as a first-grade teacher at the Islamic center’s school – wears a small navy blue cross on the delicate chain around her neck.

Located in the immigrant-heavy Rosengard neighborhood, the mosque has been the target of more than just a gunman. Becirov said there have been roughly 300 incidents – including the release of a pig – since it was founded as Scandinavia's first mosque in 1983.

Video: Immigrant neighborhood becomes center of storm in Sweden (on this page)

The most devastating attack occurred in 2003, when an arsonist set a fire that engulfed the complex and damaged its school. Only the walls of the prayer room remained, Becirov said. While the center was being rebuilt, another Molotov cocktail was hurled at it.

"After 9/11, we've had fires and the shooting and everything, but nobody has been able to stop us from cooperating with others," Becirov added.

'Norms and values'
Akesson is unconvinced by Becirov's claims of openness and the center's moderate approach to Islam.

The far-right politician maintains that Swedish identity is not rooted in the color of an individual's skin but instead in adherence to the "norms and values that have built up the Swedish society." He sees elements of Islam as running counter to those.

He said the Malmo Islamic center is "not a Swedish building, it doesn't look Swedish," adding that minarets "shouldn't be built at all."

Akesson said that some Muslim communities "say that they are not extreme ... but when they think they are alone, in secret, they say other things that they don't say in these open areas.

"So, I don't really trust those Muslim groups that build those mosques in Sweden," he added.

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Immigrants to Sweden often receive government assistance for job-seeking, learning the language and lessons about civic rights. The economic downturn has made some question whether this is the best use of scarce resources.

Roald, the Malmo University academic, noted that if a large group relies on state allowances, it causes an attitude shift among those contributing to the pot that keeps the welfare state moving.

"Everybody has to sort of work for it," Roald said. "And the point is at a certain level or at a certain stage, it will not be enough money – that's a fact."

Dr. Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert based at the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College in Stockholm, told msnbc.com that even in traditionally tolerant Sweden there was "fine balance between maintaining equilibrium in society."

”The fact that we didn't discuss the issues of integration in a very productive way ... [has] led to the rise of right-wing parties who are capitalizing on what everyone sees: There is a problem with integration in terms of social issues," he said.

"We do have a lot of immigrants, we are proud of the fact that we have diversity. If we can’t get it right, what is the recipe for the rest of Europe who have much more backward policies in terms of social challenges that they are facing?"

Msnbc.com senior video producer Matthew Rivera contributed to this report.

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