An Interview with Betlehem Isaak on Hate Speech
Betlehem Isaak is a writer and activist. Her debut My Life without You, came out in March 2020 and is the story of her childhood in Sweden and Eritrea, about living in the shadow of her father, the imprisoned Dawit Isaak, and about the grief of losing him. In line with Betlehem’s general commitments, the book deals with issues of racism and feelings of alienation, which informed the family’s life in Sweden. Issues that are still highly problematic in Sweden today. Here is a personally held interview with Betlehem Isaak by PEN/Opp’s substituting Editor Casia Bromberg, which discusses harassment, assimilation, the Swedish self-image, and the escalating friction in public discourse.
In your book you mention how earlier in life you were the victim of harassment and assault exclusively due to your skin colour. In what way has this affected you?
It has basically made me who I am today. However, no matter what I have suffered, it must ultimately not be allowed to define me. It will always be part of me—but it is not who I am. I think too that it has made me into a more resilient person and my experiences can also help other people who are harassed or assaulted in a similar way.
How and when did you learn to think so discriminately and clearly?
Acceptance is a process. One absorbs all the horror and it remains a while but then one begins to understand that it is not personal. What others think about me is their problem, not mine.
In other interviews you have said that it was not until you were in Sweden that you thought of yourself as brown. Can you tell us more about this?
I realised it when others reminded me of it. In secondary school they asked me if I “had lived in a hut in Africa.” Or they assumed that as an African I must be stupid and always be dependent on others, or that I was sick and needed to be pitied. There are always people willing to save “a poor African.” But I have never asked to be in Sweden—circumstances brought me here.
Here I am met by a kind of non-understanding, since people keep thinking I am in need of help although I have not asked for it. Many also still assume that I cannot speak the language. People forget that Sweden is a multi-cultural country and that there are people with hundreds of different ethnicities who have been in the country for several generations. Sometimes it is just the way people look at you or they might say, “You don’t belong here.”
What is it that makes people send hate letters or hateful comments to you online? What triggers them?
I think it triggers them that I am not afraid to talk about a reality that grates. Many want to believe in their inherent goodness—in Swedish goodness as prevalent and genuine. Catchwords such as solidarity have reached everyone, and yes, it does exist, but it is not efficacious. Also, solidarity is combined with assimilation in which I do not believe. When I say so many people become indignant. Swedishness is taken personally, because one believes that just by being a Swede one has for example contributed to supplying immigrants with an education and an apartment to live in. But this is not true. Certainly, people do contribute their taxes, but so do the immigrants. And even if you contribute, it is not the individual particular Swede who has made it possible to provide an education or a workplace.
Another thing that provokes is perhaps the grief that many feel over their own lives. Some people are bitter. Some may not have reached their goals, others perhaps come from tragic circumstances, and then they direct their anger towards people who have immigrated—people like me.
The idea that assimilation has to be of a certain kind—can you develop that a bit please? Do you mean that as an immigrant one is not allowed to be critical?
An immigrant is supposed to be grateful and preferably silent—one may not criticise, or be opinionated, one may only accept everything and try to do one’s best so as not to become an ‘outsider.’ However, this becomes difficult when people, in words and deeds, and society, with its tight systems, say no, you are not welcome. What is communicated is that you will never be one of us. It becomes double and false. I think many would have preferred to have been met by this you will never be one of us from the start. Then it would have been easier to adjust and to find your way ‘home’ in some other way, instead of being forced into a continuous struggle with assimilation that obviously does not work.
After your summer talk in Swedish Radio, have the hate and the harassments become any different?
After my summer talk the hate has come even closer. It has become more personal, and I have felt more exposed since people who have chosen to hate me have written letters by hand, found my address, and sent the letter to my home. This is a frightful form of abuse. However, I have on the whole received more positive response than negative response and this is what I carry with me.
Do these letters make you feel unsafe in your daily life?
Yes, in a way I feel less safe. Sadly, this is the whole point. But I am managing as best I can and am trying to set a good example. That is really all I can do.
Some say that you should never show your fear because then you are ‘giving them what they want.’ What are your thoughts here?
Of course you can show your fear. That is the human thing to do—they are showing their fears in the worst way possible, while concealing their names and identities. I think those of us who are prepared to talk openly are the brave ones. The fear is there but it is often overcome by the help of people who are supportive and who listen; even those who come with constructive criticism and who want a constructive dialogue are helpful. Together we show that it is possible to talk about complex issues without hatred or personal attack.
Many find that the tone on the Internet has generally become more abrasive and uncompromising. Do you agree, and if so, what may the reasons be?
I agree—things have gone overboard. One reason may be that the Internet is accessible to all, which it should be, but not on such free conditions. Nowadays, people actually need lifeguards or some other life protection for fear of consequences. We are also living in a polarised society; in Europe extreme ideological differences have become mainstream.
Today it has become fine to openly be a racist, and consequently it is deemed okay to be against globalisation, immigration, and the reception of refugees. Many politicians add to this polarisation by repeating lies more complex than their own statements, often making it sound as if immigration is the root cause of everything. But this is merely the beginning; eventually they need to take harsher steps against their critics and against other groups standing in the way, who must be coerced into silence.
How might we encourage a more healthy social discourse?
By making sure one always keeps a respectful tone and by consistently pointing out and reminding people of our equal worth. By remembering that freedom of expression is vital, but that there is a line when the freedom of speech turns into hate speech and incitement against an ethnic group.
What can we do as individuals to combat hate speech? How can others support activists and public persons such as yourself, who are subjected to hate and threat?
By supporting our work, but also by taking the debate, standing up, and saying how things should be. And if you are a person with any kind of privilege, it is good to make use of that privilege for the sake of those who are more vulnerable, no matter how they are exposed. You can also engage in groups or organisations, learn more, read up on things, question yourself and the political structures we live in.
What are the most effective and forceful forms of collective (or individual) mobilizations against hate speech you have experienced? What can we learn from these?
In Sweden there are several organisations and people who strive to protect human rights. To engage in an organisation is one good thing, but I also want to encourage that you start a study group, or a society or an organisation. It is never wrong to hitch onto the work being done to forward the respect for the equal value of all human beings.
What does the freedom of expression mean to you?
For me it foremost entails the right to be allowed to speak and think freely, which is a human right. I am here because the freedom of speech in my first home country was severely curtailed in a brutal way, so it means a lot to me. I am trying to do as best I can to maintain the Swedish freedom of expression, while also struggling to help make it a reality once more in my first home country Eritrea.
What do you think is the most efficient way to combat anti-democratic forces online and in real life?
I believe in the rule of law, and then I mean laws that work well. I think big platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have a responsibility too. Naturally, education is also important, and it is important to normalise encounters between different kinds of people. It is important to make integration really work—several things need to come together to make it work. We are not there yet, but I have hope because I know that there is a lot of positive energy in people out there who incessantly, day by day continue to work on these issues. So, get engaged, and start off by educating yourself—a lot is just a digital button away.
Where do you get all your energy? Do you have any role models?
My foremost role models are my parents Sofia and Dawit, but I also admire Malala, Michelle Obama, Toni Morrisson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Eritrean women who were part of the struggle when Eritrea freed itself from Ethiopia during the 30-year war, which is often forgotten. Also, I admire ordinary single mothers—who have the hardest jobs of all—my friends, and civil courage. And my cousins Dina, Dana, Aida and Feven, who give me hope—they are totally wonderful. Every time I meet them I am empowered and my hope is renewed.