On Monday, Sweden was awash with candles. How do I know? I know, because 13 December is Sankta Lucia, the feast day of St Lucy, when pretty blonde girls throughout the country dance around in long, white nighties and crowns of candles. In candle-lit homes, they hand round trays of little saffron buns. In candle-lit churches, they sing the Lucia song, which talks of shadows "brooding" in a "dark house" and there, on the threshold, shining in the darkness, the figure of Sankta Lucia.
I know because, even in Guildford, I did it, too. I wore a white nightie and the Lucia crown. My brother would wear one of my father's white shirts and the pointy hat that made him look like a budding member of the Ku Klux Klan. We'd munch pepperkakor, the ginger biscuits that you had to break into three pieces to get a wish, and mouth the words of the song whose lyrics we didn't really know, and then join my mother in the chorus.
On Monday night, my mother, who is 76, and has a computer much snazzier than mine, called to say I must watch the Sankta Lucia service on Swedish TV, and dictated the link. So I did. Or, rather, to be strictly honest, I saw a tiny bit of it. What struck me, as I gazed at the flickering candles in the beautiful Kingsholm Church, and felt the familiar swell of homesickness for a country I've never even lived in, was that the girls in the white nighties no longer looked like adverts for Hitler Youth. Some of them, like Anni Dewani, the Swedish-born bride of a Brit who may or may not have paid to have her bumped off, were really quite dark. But they all – blonde, dark, in white nighties, or in winter coats – looked remarkably calm. Remarkably calm that they were just a short walk away from the place where, two days earlier, Sweden saw its first suicide bomb.
Anyone who knows Sweden at all will know that in a country where breaking the (incredibly low) speed limit, even when you're on your own in the middle of a forest, is a big deal, and where you can, or used to be able to, leave your unlocked bike behind the sand dunes on the beach, confident that when you've finished your healthy swim, it will still be waiting for you, a terrorist attack is likely to cause a bit of a stir. But anyone who knows that would be wrong.
My aunt, said my mother, had told her that the bomb had been on page 12 of the Sunday paper. Page 12! The biggest news since Abba and Bjorn Borg, and it's practically buried in Business! I knew that Swedes (apart from my mother) were preternaturally calm, but this seemed well on the way to taking the (ginger) biscuit.
So I called my very calm cousin. In perfect, fluent English (I only know the words for Swedish cakes) he explained that the Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, had said that "everyone should take it easy". When the Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, had, on Saturday night, sent a tweet about the bomb, an event some might consider rather more tweetworthy than whether Matt was going to beat Rebecca, he had been told off. The Prime Minister, my cousin explained, didn't want anyone to reach "premature" conclusions about whether it was, or wasn't, a terrorist attack. He "wanted everyone to calm down". Including the newspapers. Who obeyed!
By Monday, when the facts were clearer, the papers were full of the handsome young Iraqi who moved to Sweden in 1992 and then went to study in Luton. "It looks," said my cousin, and I felt a rush of something like shame, "as if he was radicalised in England". Well, yes. I'm afraid it does. They give us Wallander and dragon tattoos and shocking, but fictional, deaths in pretty Swedish towns. We give them the real thing. Give us a nice, polite young Muslim and we can turn him into a mass-murdering nutter. Or would-be mass-murdering nutter, since our wannabe mass-murdering nutters seem, with their non-ignitable shoes, ineptly wired explosives and damp squibs, to be thoroughly infused with the spirit of British amateurism. For which one can only dash off a flattering cartoon of Mohammed and praise Allah.
"I think," said my calm cousin, calmly, "that we don't really have any problems with Muslim extremism. I think that this is just a singular event by a lunatic who was confused. I think," he added, "that our Muslims are better integrated than yours." I think, alas, that he's right.
In the past 20-odd years, Sweden has changed from a largely homogeneous society to one where 11 per cent of the population are immigrants and 5 per cent are Muslim. As in almost every immigrant community in the world, levels of unemployment and crime are higher than for the native population. Many immigrants are clustered together in not-very-beautiful urban estates. But the extremely generous help that they have received from the extremely patient taxpayer (but whose patience, it's increasingly clear, probably isn't infinite) has ensured that immigrant communities have had a start in their new country that most could only dream of.
According to the Government Offices of Sweden website, which boasts a Benetton-style photo of an adorable black child arm-in-arm with a pale-as-Assange blonde tot, newly-arrived immigrants are offered "tuition in Swedish", and "contacts with the labour market" as well as "schools and childcare services". The objective, it says, is that "the newly arrived learn Swedish as soon as possible and be able to support themselves". It promises "social cohesion built on diversity" and "equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities for everyone".
These are very big promises, but a study on the integration of immigrants in Europe in 2007 bears at least some of them out. Only Sweden, it said, "scored highly enough to be classed as a nation entirely favourable to promoting integration". Researchers found a "fair, simple and transparent system". Sweden "scored 100 per cent on the rights it gives to foreign workers". 100 per cent!
This is a country which cares passionately about the rights of all its citizens and enshrines those rights in law. It tries to ensure that things that might become obstacles to equality – like having a dark skin or a body that bears babies – aren't. It takes non-consensual unprotected sex between a man and a woman extremely seriously, because it takes all differences seriously, and knows that men are physically stronger than women, and that a sexual disease, or an unwanted pregnancy, arising from an act of sexual coercion, is serious.
The result isn't Utopia, but it is one of the most equal societies – for natives and immigrants, agnostics and Muslims, and for men and women – in the world. It's a country that will stand up for the right of a cartoonist to depict Mohammed as a dog, and the right of a Muslim not to like it. It's a country, above all, which hates a fuss.
Sweden will hate the fuss over Julian Assange. It will hate the fuss over Taimour Abdulwaha al-Abdaly. It will, in both cases, and backed up by legislation, do not what other countries ask it to, but what it believes to be right. And it will carry on eating the saffron buns, and doing the shopping, and singing the songs, and hoping that the fuss will die down, and the madness will flee, and, as the Lucia song says, that "darkness shall take flight soon".Reuse content