This interview was conducted in July 2022 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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About Mustafa Panshiri
Mustafa Panshiri was born in Afghanistan but because of the Taliban, he left the country with his family in 1997, and came to Sweden as an 11-year-old. 16 years later, Panshiri graduated from the Swedish Police Academy and began working as a police officer. With his Afghan roots and his language skills in both Dari and Persian, he became a valuable bridge between the Swedish society and the Afghan refugees who immigrated in 2015-2016. Eventually, Panshiri left his job with the police to instead travel around the country and help young immigrants and refugees to become part of their new country. Since then, he has written the books Det lilla landet som kunde (The little country that could) and 7 råd till Mustafa – så blir du lagom svensk i världens mest extrema land (7 tips for Mustafa – how to become Swedish in the world’s most extreme country). Panshiri also hosts the podcasts Gränslöst (Limitless) and Sista Måltiden (The Last Supper).
In August 2021, the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan, 24 years after you and your family left the country. How did you and your parents react when you saw this happen?
– My father had actually been there just a few months before. He comes from the Panjshir Valley and was there to sell a piece of land. Dad’s side of the family is upper middle class and they lived very nicely in this province. Shortly after his return to Sweden, we sat together in front of YouTube and watched how the Taliban took over the entire area where he grew up. We watched videos of Taliban confiscating our family’s houses, tearing down paintings and ruining everything. It was a lot for my parents to take in and a lot of emotions to deal with. For me, I felt both gratitude and guilt. Gratitude over the fact that I no longer live there and guilt because so many of my relatives are still there.
“An Afghan raised in Kabul with educated and relatively secular parents will probably have more in common with a Swede than with an Afghan shepherd from the countryside.”
Sweden and Afghanistan very different in several ways, which is clearly demonstrated in the World Value Survey. What would you say are the biggest differences between the countries that give rise to challenges for Afghans when they come to Sweden?
– Let me start by saying that it largely depends on where in Afghanistan you come from and under what circumstances you grew up. An Afghan raised in Kabul with educated and relatively secular parents will probably have more in common with a Swede than with an Afghan shepherd from the countryside. Nevertheless, above all I would say that the countries differ in how the government is viewed, its role in people’s lives and the degree of trust in the authorities. In addition, there are also differences in the role religion plays in society and then also differences in moral values. But again, the biggest difference, which we in Sweden unfortunately have been ignorant about, is what people think about the government’s role and their trust in it.
The Afghan immigrants who came to Sweden during the refugee crisis in 2015 received a lot of attention in the public debate. Their age became a hot topic and whether they were actually children or adults. How homogeneous would you say that the Afghan group was?
– Almost all of them were young, male Hazaras. Not all, but many of them grew up in Iran and have no real connection to Afghanistan, other than it being the birthplace of their parents. In Iran, they are second-class citizens and are often treated in a terrible way. Expressen wrote in an article that during the asylum process, 0% of them had ID documents and that the majority had their age adjusted. Unfortunately, they became a symbol of the dysfunctional immigration policy Sweden had during that time. Then, the so-called The Swedish Upper Secondary School Act was introduced, which required that they not only finish high school but also secure housing and a job within six months, which no one can do. Not even ordinary Swedes can do it.
Seven years have passed since then. How are they now? Are you still in contact with some of them?
– The less you hear about them, the better. In the beginning, a lot of bad things happened and there was constant talk about them. But now, I rarely hear anything about them at all, which is a good sign. Since the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, it is more or less impossible to deport anyone there, so they get to stay in Sweden. They have grown older, matured and they no longer do stupid things in the same way. I still have contact with those I’ve gotten to know, mainly through social media. Many want to become police officers and prepare for that, get a driver’s license, work out and learn to swim. My view is that they live their lives as they should and focus on the everyday things, just like the rest of us.
In your book, you write that the family is the most central entity for Afghans. What happens to a teenage boy who is sent alone to the other side of the world, without his family?
– Social control disappears. You are used to being watched by the family, relatives and neighbors. Suddenly, all of that disappears and you discover how much freedom there is here in Sweden. Unfortunately, no one explains to them that with freedom comes responsibility. Of course, some use of the opportunity, educate themselves and become part of Swedish society. But some cannot handle the freedom and they go crazy. Several factors come into play here, such as class, upbringing and personality.
“The high level of trust in the police in Sweden is quite extreme from a global perspective, and I knew that since people in Iran and Afghanistan have a completely different view, it was only a matter of time before problems would occur.”
You started to engage in conversations with this group of young refugees as a police offer and then continued on your own without the police uniform. What were you talking about with them?
– In the beginning, I was explaining how the Swedish police works. The high level of trust in the police in Sweden is quite extreme from a global perspective, and I knew that since people in Iran and Afghanistan have a completely different view, it was only a matter of time before problems would occur. Someone had to explain how it works here. Basic things that you and I take for granted, but which seem very strange to them. For example, you are not allowed to walk around in public with a baseball bat or with a knife in your pocket. Later on we started talking more and more about moral values, i.e. what Swedes generally think on important issues.
– I try to distinguish between cultural clashes and cultural conflicts. A cultural clash is usually due to ignorance or a misunderstanding that in many cases you can laugh about as soon as it’s been sorted out. A cultural conflict on the other hand, is when you think differently about how something should be and you cannot find an agreement. Cultural clashes can always be bridged through knowledge and compromise. Cultural conflicts require more discussion and a different approach. I wanted to convey things that Swedes take for granted, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and gender equality.
Was it easier for you, not being born in Sweden, to see what Swedes take for granted?
– Yes, it’s a matter of having an outside perspective. For Swedes, it’s often required that someone from the outside challenges their norms and ways of looking at life in order to realize what they take for granted. If someone doesn’t shake hands with people of the opposite sex for example, then suddenly everyone discovers how important they think it is to shake hands. They don’t really know why they think it’s so important, but they feel it strongly. I would say that’s a positive effect of the immigration we’ve had, that Swedes have become more aware of what they think is important.
What was the response you got in your conversations?
– The majority had no problems with what I said, but were curious and asked a thousand questions. They realized that if they are going to live here, it’s best for them to understand how things work. Some reacted more critically in the cultural conflicts, for example regarding the fact that in Sweden you can criticize and joke about someone’s religion or that homosexuals can get married. But I still found it relatively easy to sort out even those situations. If you just ask them in what way their lives are made worse by homosexuals getting married, you get them thinking. These are questions they have never thought about before. They have simply not had any reason to. It’s actually the same for all of us; it’s only when someone asks why you hold a certain opinion that you are really forced to think about it.
“They no longer see him as one of them when he walks around in a suit and speaks good Swedish.”
Who somebody is, obviously plays a role in how his message is received by others. In your case, the key in your conversation with the Afghan refugees was that you shared cultural background and language. What is the reason it matters and how crucial is it would you say?
– I wish it didn’t matter. I wish that what mattered was if what was said is true and correct. But unfortunately, reality isn’t like that. We listen more to those we identify with or those we want to be like. Therefore, it matters who conveys the message. However, precisely this made it tough in my role in the end, because I had to constantly make sure that they could identify with me. Anything in my appearance or behavior could create a distance and a barrier between me and them and thus make it much harder to gain their trust.
– It became important to think about how I dressed, for example. I tried to keep it as neutral and simple as possible, with jeans and a t-shirt. Going in with fancy clothes would have been completely wrong, or if I had parked an expensive car outside their refugee shelter. I remember that I was interested in tattoos during that period, but showing off a large sleeve tattoo would have made them see me as totally Swedish. It was a constant balancing act where I had to show that I was still one of them, at the same time as I needed to show that I had managed to master the rules and culture here in our new country. It became very strenuous and stressful after a while.
– This makes me think of Ahmed Abdirahman, the founder of the Järva Politician Week in Stockholm. He is Somali and still lives in the Stockholm suburb Tensta. He’s a great guy who works really hard. I assumed that all Somalis in Tensta love him and are proud of his successes, but he explained to me that they call him “Ahmed Svensson”, to mock him and insinuate that he’s more Swedish than Somali. They no longer see him as one of them when he walks around in a suit and speaks good Swedish. They feel he has left them. It’s very difficult to make all groups happy. I finally decided to just be myself and to do what I believe in. If people want to listen to me, I’m happy.
How should the police relate to the fact that people listen more to people they identify with, especially in the high-crime neighborhoods?
– You cannot ignore the fact that if you have so-called cultural competence, you will succeed better in these neighborhoods. If you know the language and culture, you will be able to navigate more easily. Unfortunately, right now there are many young guys from medium-sized cities around Sweden who are applying to become police officers and they have basically zero experience of different cultures. They have never set their foot in a high-crime neighborhood. The first time they do it will be in police uniform. The guys who live in these neighborhoods can sniff out uncertainty. Right away they’re in your face, trying to intimidate you. If you are new, without experience, it’s easy to get nervous and put your hand on the holster.
“He is a Swedish, white, blond, middle-aged man, but the Somalis there see him as one of their own.”
– I also want to emphasize that so called cultural competence is not only positive. Those who don’t like the police in these environments can, for example, say that Swedes who are police officers only do their job, while an immigrant like me is a traitor for having switched to the other side. I remember one occasion when a Swedish colleague and I were sitting in the police car and a young immigrant boy who passed by looked at us in a suspicious way. My colleague got out of the car to talk to him and the guy started yelling that my colleague was a racist and only stopped him because he was an immigrant. I got out of the car to certify that we had no racist motive at all, but he just looked at me and screamed “You are the biggest racist!” And of course he has a point in that I may very well also be a racist, even more than my Swedish colleague. In Afghanistan and Iran, people often look down on dark-skinned people, but that aspect is rarely acknowledged in Sweden. Here, many believe that only white Swedes can be racists.
When it comes to cultural competence, isn’t there still a difference between what someone can learn in the form of knowledge and what someone brings with them from birth? Can an ordinary Swede ever become as culturally competent as someone born in another country?
– You can find individual examples, such as Ulf Boström who is works in Gothenburg’s high-crime neighborhoods. Ulf is Sweden’s only so called integration police. He is a Swedish, white, blond, middle-aged man, but the Somalis there see him as one of their own. They greet him like a Somali! He knows their religion and culture, he knows how it works and he has cracked the code. The residents know that Ulf is not only there from 8:00 to 16:00 and then goes home. Ulf is always available and people can call him at any time. But no, in general not everyone will be able to become UIf.
“They want people who come to Sweden to adapt and behave in a Swedish way.”
Assimilation is a word that is used a lot in other countries, but in Sweden it is considered so bad that many say integration even though they actually mean assimilation. You say that both are needed?
– When it comes to following the law, it’s of course assimilation that applies. You have to adapt to the law. It will not meet you halfway. But when talking about cultural issues, most say integration and mean that immigrants and Swedes should learn from each other and live in some kind of compromise. It sounds nice but I would say that even culturally, many Swedes actually mean assimilation. They want people who come to Sweden to adapt and behave in a Swedish way. As soon as someone deviates a little too much, they back away.
– There are now many different immigrant groups in Sweden, so when people say that Swedes should also learn about immigrants’ culture, one may wonder how many cultures Swedes should actually be expected to learn. The simplest way would be that all groups that come to Sweden learn about how it works here. The word assimilation, if the process is complete, means that everyone stops eating the food from their home country, stops speaking their own language and adapts completely. But that is not what the Swedes want or advocate. Speak your language, dance your dances, eat your food. But when it comes to people’s behavior, they want it to be similar to Swedish behavior.
Maybe this manifests itself in the mosque issue? Assuming most people are okay with mosques, because we have freedom of religion in Sweden, but the issue of call to prayer is extremely controversial. It’s like people want to draw a line at some point?
– Exactly, they want it to be a mosque in a Swedish way. As soon as you start to challenge Swedish norms, conflicts arise. Swedes are generally not used to norms being challenged, because it’s been a homogeneous country for so long. This means that Swedes lack experience of friction and suddenly everybody are shocked. You can look at other countries, such as the United Kingdom or the United States, where they have more experience of immigration. There, similar issues are handled in a more pragmatic way.
– In those countries, the debate is rarely about whether a mosque should be built or not, but where it should be built and how to ensure that it doesn’t disturb others. In Sweden, it is becoming more polarized. Yes or no. For or against. The debate over call to prayer should instead be focused on how to make it work. Maybe it’s possible to have call to prayer once a week instead of five times a day? Maybe it’s okay as long as speakers are not used, as it used to be in Muslim countries long ago? These types of problems can often be solved more pragmatically than by just saying no. We will have to do that in the future.
“If you think the government will fix integration, you are naïve. It’s up to all of us to do something.”
Your book, 7 tips for Mustafa, has received positive reviews but also criticism. Above all, the advice to add a Swedish-sounding name has provoked reactions. Critics are saying that the approach you propose is wrong and that you should work against society’s discrimination rather than “Swedishizing” people with foreign names. What are your thoughts on the criticism?
– The criticism was very much expected. I understood that it would be seen as an excessive assimilation measure. That is why I emphasize in the book that it’s of course not these people’s fault that they do not get a job because of their name. I also say that we must continue to fight against discrimination. But this advice is for the young immigrant who cannot wait for us to get there. For those who want to start working now. To those who want to increase their chances today. In that case you can, if you want, follow the advice and add a Swedish-sounding name. It’s a shortcut. A pragmatic solution. Also, this isn’t something I came up with myself, people all over the world do this!
In your book, you also give advice to Swedes on how they can facilitate the integration process for immigrants. Can you tell us in short what a Swede can do to help?
– Be clear. Explain what you expect and what the rules of the game are. Maybe it’s asking too much, but let people in a bit more. If you move to the USA, you will probably be invited to a barbecue party with the neighbors in no time, but that doesn’t happen in Sweden. These people have come to Sweden now and it’s in everyone’s interest that they become part of society. If you think the government will fix integration, you are naïve. It’s up to all of us to do something. Despite all the differences between us, there are also common denominators. We need to get better at focusing on what we have in common. Maybe it turns out that you and your immigrant neighbor are cheering for the same football team?
The negative trend we are now seeing in Swedish high-crime neighborhoods is obviously complex. Do you see any efforts that could really move the trend in a positive direction?
– New initiatives and projects are constantly started and then shut down. Some manage to achieve good results but unfortunately many do not. A long-term perspective is often lacking. I believe that we are underestimating the the real estate companies in these neighborhoods. They have the potential to play a key role. They can help recreating the social control that is lacking today. Political scientist Peter Esaiasson has talked a lot about this.
– If a tenant who misbehaves is evicted, it sends a signal to other residents that this landlord is serious about the rules. It’s also important that it’s a legitimate actor, i.e. that the decisions are perceived as fair and backed up by the neighbors. In some areas, for example in Gothenburg and Södertälje, doormen have been employed in various properties. It’s someone who lives in the house who is responsible for ensuring that it’s orderly, clean and tidy. They become a link between the property owner and the residents in the house. The doorman can get reduced rent or a financial compensation for his work. This can lead to a greater sense of responsibility among the residents. I believe in that model and there is probably even more you can do there.
Which book would you like to recommend?
– Right now I am reading Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations. It’s absolutely amazing! It struck me how different it is to read this book compared to when a religious person reads a religious text. This book is full of wisdom, but it was written 2000 years ago and some parts may not be relevant today. Then it is easy for me to ignore them and continue reading, without having to think about it. But a religious person who reads his holy book cannot do the same. Every single sentence is considered true and it’s up to you as a reader to try to explain why it is right, through intellectual acrobatics. I don’t have to defend anything in Marcus Aurelius’ book. I thought that was interesting.
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