Finland Finnish Culture Finnish History Uncategorized Vasarahammer



Short history of Finnish tolerance

It is difficult to say when the age of tolerance officially began in Finland. Perhaps, there is no such date but the event that certainly symbolizes the transition from the old to the new more “open-minded” age was the date when cartoonist Kari Suomalainen was sacked from Helsingin Sanomat, the largest daily newspaper in Finland in 1991.

Suomalainen or “Kari” as he was generally known, was not in fact sacked, but the paper refused to publish his cartoon criticizing immigration which led to the resignation of Suomalainen. In the censored picture there were three black men laughing and a police officer stating to his partner: “I just asked for a visa and a work permit.” Suomalainen’s cartoons had been the part of Finnish collective memory for 41 years.

The arrival of Somalis

Before Suomalainen’s resignation the first Somali asylum seekers had arrived from the Soviet Union after the collapse of Mohammed Siad Barre’s regime in Somalia in 1990. Most of them did not have any identification, so Suomalainen’s censored cartoon did have a point. The Finnish authorities did not know what to do with the newcomers and were considering whether Gorbachev’s Soviet Union is a safe country for the asylum seekers to return.

Eventually the Somalis were allowed to stay and granted a residence permit. They arrived to a country that was in the middle of the biggest recession since the 1930’s and the fact that they got everything they needed from the social services caused some resentment in the native population with an unemployment rate of 15 per cent.

At the end of 2010 there were about 12 000 Somali speakers living in Finland. The employment rate of the Somalis is 21.7 which is the lowest among all immigrant groups in Finland.

Immigration policy before 1990

It was no accident that the most significant change in Finnish immigration policy took place at the same time the Soviet Union ceased to exist. With the official policy of friendship and cooperation with the big eastern neighbor it would have been impossible for the Finnish government to pursue the status of moral superpower like neighboring Sweden did under Social Democrat Prime Minister Olof Palme.

During the Cold war years, Finland could never accept any asylum seekers from the Eastern Bloc countries for reasons related to foreign policy. Finnish authorities returned all Soviet defectors that they managed to catch. Thankfully, the border to Sweden was open and some of the defectors managed to escape to Sweden before they got in contact with the authorities.

In addition, Finland was a country from which people emigrated up to the early 1970’s. Even today, Finland is not the number one favorite destination for asylum seekers, even though the asylum laws are, contrary to popular perception among non-Finns, not very strict at all.

The collapse of the Soviet Union cannot be regarded as the only reason for the change in immigration policy. Even during the 1980’s some activists and civil servants, most notably Risto Laakkonen from the Ministry of Labor, looked to Sweden as the model for immigration policy. However, their dreams could only be realized after the USSR was gone.

Law against incitement of ethnic hatred

The law against incitement of ethnic hatred was introduced into the Finnish Criminal law code in 1995 when Finland joined the European Union. The law lay mostly dormant for the next ten years with only a handful of convictions, none of them high profile cases.

It was not until Mikko Puumalainen became the Minority Ombudsman in 2002 that things started to happen. At that time the internet had become a vehicle for free expression of public opinion, which concerned the authorities.

Puumalainen’s first target was Tatu Vanhanen, who, together with Richard Lynn had published the study IQ and the Wealth of Nations. In an interview given to the Helsingin Sanomat monthly magazine edition, Vanhanen stated that Asians and Whites are more intelligent due to evolutionary reasons. Puumalainen said that he feared that Vanhanen’s remarks would boost racism and that is why he reported Vanhanen to the police.

The case raised interest in the Finnish MSM, because Tatu Vanhanen’s son Matti was the Prime Minister at the time. Eventually, the police dropped the case but it clearly showed that the results of scientific research were not out of bounds when it comes to incitement of ethnic hatred.

Puumalainen did not and could not question the validity of Vanhanen’s research from a scientific point of view and that did not seem to concern him at all. For him, the most important thing was that the results of Vanhanen’s study might “boost racism”.

In his interpretation of what is acceptable speech and what is not Puumalainen relied on State Prosecutor Mika Illman’s doctoral dissertation “Hets mot folkgrupp” (Incitement of ethnic hatred). One of the most famous quotes by Illman that has gained a life of its own in the internet is the following:

“Criticism of foreigners is acceptable as long as it is not said aloud”.

The absurdity of this statement is obvious to anyone but the principle still lives in the Finnish law enforcement and justice system when it comes to incitement of ethnic hatred. Based on the prosecutions so far, it is safe to say that the law enforcement is the main tool for the establishment to combat “hate speech” in the internet.

Finland and the Motoons

The behavior of the authorities during the Danish Muhammad cartoons also deserves a mention. No Finnish MSM outlet ever published the Muhammad cartoons. They offered various excuses but their conduct resembled the way Finnish MSM behaved during the years of Finlandization. Criticism of Islam is unacceptable very much the same way as criticism of the Soviet Union was politically incorrect during the Cold War with one significant difference: Anti-Soviet agitation was never a crime in Finland.

In 1973 Communist MP Mirjam Vire-Tuominen proposed the so called “Peace Law” that would have criminalized the criticism of Soviet Union. The proposal never became the law, which indicated that there was some support for freedom of speech even in the darkest period of Finlandization.

Suomen Sisu published the Motoons after the Swedish government had shut down the website of the Swedish Democrats that had also published the cartoons. During the police investigation the Suomen Sisu leadership found that there wasn’t anybody to support them and their freedom of expression. The MSM was quiet as well as all the organizations that claimed to support human rights. No public figure belonging to the establishment condemned Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen for his apology to muslims.


The same thing has happened in all of the following cases involving incitement to ethnic hatred. The establishment and the MSM have never expressed a word in favor of freedom of speech. In fact, the Finnish MSM is in the forefront in restricting expression in their own websites especially after the atrocities performed by Anders Behring Breivik last July.

The question remains why is the law against incitement of ethnic hatred used so much in Finland compared to other European countries. The answer may lie in history and the traditional respect of the law in Finnish society. Because of this respect of the law, Finland maintained a parliamentary democracy in the 1930’s and during the rise of fascism in Europe, even though it was under threat from the right-wing Lapua movement.

And it is the progressive-minded liberals that point out that the immigration critics “are not following the law” when they point out problems caused by immigrants. They too have internalized the inherent legalism of the Finnish society. It does not occur to them that the law itself might be unjust and lead to arbitrary decisions.

There is also one thing that protects the likes of Mika Illman from international scrutiny. It is the language barrier. Finnish is a minor language and rarely spoken outside Finland. Swedish, on the other hand, is understood in Denmark, Norway and Finland. European Court of Human Rights has a different perception concerning freedom of speech than Illman who only approves of “silent hate speech”. None of the cases involving incitement of ethnic hatred have so far reached Strasbourg.

It may be that Illman will lose in the ECHR but he might win, not because he is right, but because cases involving Finnish defendants are presented by Finnish law experts. They just might use the language barrier to Illman’s advantage.

3 Responses

  1. I seem to remember that it was not long after I left Finland in the late spring of 1991 that first large contingent of Somalis — hundreds, I think — arrived unexpectedly by train at the Finnish-Soviet border, with everyone from the onsite border guards to the authorities in Helsinki not quite knowing what to do. I can’t seem to find anything about that particular event online, though. Am I correct in remembering it this way?

    1. That’s exactly how it played out John F., and they still don’t know what to do with them. Having Somalis in Finland is one of the weirdest scenarios I can think of where immigration is concerned.

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