Early in the election campaign, Education Minister, Jan Björklund, proposed a ban on the Burka in schools - arguing that teachers and students must be able to look each other in the eye. The proposal generated a wave of public debate and speculation about what jobs people might become out of bounds for those wearing a veil covering everything but their eyes.
Challenged by Swedish television on the issue, Björklund denied that he was playing a populist card
“On the contrary - it’s obvious that faces should not be covered up in classrooms. If I, as education minister, did not dare to say that – I would be stirring up extremism,” he said.
The Burka also features prominently in an election campaign advert by the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party. The advert shows ominous looking Burka-clad women rushing forward with prams and swarming around a frail frightened pensioner. A voice-over tells voters they face a stark choice in the election – to help the elderly or immigrants.
Yet the issue appears to have little traction among Swedish voters, barely registering in opinion polls and far behind issues like schools, healthcare and jobs.
And that’s probably also one of the reasons why the launch of a controversial book this month - “Hatar Gud Kvinnor?” translated from its original title “Does God Hate Women” – did not create much of an outcry here either.
When Ophelia Benson, a prominent American atheist philosopher in the US, promoted her book in Britain last year, she was almost unanimously slammed by the media there for being biased and pedantic.
In presenting her argument that the god worshipped by billions of believers around the world is cruel and oppressive towards women, she does not mince her words. She writes that religion is “a pesticide” and cites horrific examples of human rights abuses - from internment in industrial schools in Ireland to public stonings in Afghanistan – both carried out in the name of God.
But Benson argues that it’s not what she says that the problem but rather the fact that it’s still a taboo to criticise religion today, even in largely secular countries.
She recognizes that criticising Islam can play into the hands of racists but says that should not be used as a reason to stifle discussion about real problems. There is a difference, she argues, between criticising a set of ideas – or Islam - and the people who follow the religion - Muslims.