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Swedish far-right leader says Islamism is a bigger threat than Nazism

Acting Swedish Democrats leader Mattias Karlsson during a news conference at parliament in Stockholm, Sweden, on Dec. 2, 2014. (Pontus Lundahl/AFP/Getty Images)

The Swedish Democrats (SD) won 13 percent of the vote in September’s general election, becoming the third-most-popular political party in the country. Their success took many by surprise, but in many ways it was the result of a shift seen in other European far-right parties: SD, which has roots in Swedish fascism and white supremacy, had tempered its more extremist policies, and instead focused on social conservatism, immigration and Islam.

On Tuesday, acting party leader Mattias Karlsson hammered that point home by telling public broadcaster SVT that "the threat of Islamism is perhaps greater than it is from Nazism." The comments, which came on the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, stoked controversy in a country grappling with a backlash against multiculturalism.

SVT had asked Karlsson, who has been leading the party for the past few months after Jimmie Åkesson was put on leave for exhaustion, about statements once made by new party Secretary Richard Jomshof. Jomshof, a former teacher and member of a synth-pop band, had been criticized for a blog post in 2012 titled "Muslims who want to take over Europe" in which he said that Islamism is now a bigger threat than National Socialism or Communism were.

"[Nazism] was quite a terrible threat, much worse in his time," Karlsson told SVT. "Today, I think that the threat of Islamism is perhaps greater than it is from Nazism. But one must of course take all ideologies seriously and fight them in every way."

The comments have drawn the ire of Jewish and Muslim groups in Sweden. "As we make this commemoration, we want people to recognize evil in the world and to know that this can happen to any group, not just Jews," Lena Posner-Körösi, chairwoman of the Jewish community in Stockholm, told the Local. "For [Karlsson] to talk about the threat of Islam as he has done is very dangerous and shows he hasn't learnt anything. And yes, he is from a group with a Nazi past."

SD's past has been a sticking point for many critics. While the SD logo now is a rather benign blue and yellow flower, for years it used the torch favored by the British far-right party the National Front. The party describes itself as the "Swedish-friendly alternative," positioning itself as a populist choice against the mainstream Swedish parties, yet critics say that the SD's early links to neo-Nazis and other extremists haven't been totally expunged – last year, one party candidate had to resign after a photograph of her wearing a swastika arm band emerged.

Indirectly, the success of the SD is linked to the Nazi era in Germany. Sweden was officially neutral during World War II, and it ended up becoming a major refuge for  large numbers of European Jews and anti-Nazi activists fleeing persecution. That tradition of openness to refugees has continued into the 21st century – in 2013, the country was by far the largest recipient of asylum-seekers per capita of any country in the OECD, in large part due to the government's decision to accept all refugees from Syria.

SD has capitalized on concerns about the troubled Swedish welfare state and public fear about Islamist extremism to focus on the threat posed by immigration. Speaking to SVT on Tuesday, Karlsson said that refugees should ideally be accommodated by countries in the vicinity of their home countries. Asked what this would have meant for Hungary's Jews, the SD leader said: "I think you should judge it in each situation."